Nov 4, 2008

Building Supportive, Respectful, and Collaborative Relationships with Survivors of Human Rights

I am so grateful to Adriana Bartow-Portillo for writing a fantastic article about working in solidarity with survivors. The full article is here, y aca en espaƱol. It is well worth following the link to read the whole thing with prettier formatting, but if you're in a rush at least read this excerpt: (art by rini)

"There are some survivors that are eager to share their story with others in hopes that doing so will contribute to saving others from their same fate. The sharing experience, however, is often excruciatingly painful and stressful. Survivors who choose to tell their story relive these horrors and suffer the aftereffects of having chosen to speak out on behalf of those who no longer have a voice. For many survivors, intense lights, the presence of police or military officers and the sound of police or ambulance sirens often lead to flashbacks.

For me, sharing my story is a sacrifice I make to pay tribute to my disappeared father and daughters and to all of those who have perished at the hands of Latin American soldiers and officers trained at the SOA/WHINSEC. It is also an act of defiance, a refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice.

As a survivor, I have traveled all over the United States raising awareness of human rights issues – not only in Guatemala and Latin America but also in the United States and in several countries around the world. My audiences have been religious groups, elementary, high school and university students and professors, women, trade unionists, refugees, trauma survivors, and members of human rights and humanitarian organizations.

I have had many positive experiences, but several times the experience has not been so positive and in some cases, frankly, quite traumatizing. We survivors do not like the “exoticization” of our experience. I remember one occasion when I was asked to share my story only, leaving an “expert” to provide the context in which the disappearance of my family took place.

Survivors don’t like to be treated like celebrities. Several years ago I was asked for my autograph. I felt as if I had been pushed into a deep well of shame and embarrassment. Most of us consider our social justice and human rights advocacy work to be a responsibility rather than a choice.

How I wish that in those particular cases, event organizers had asked me about what would have made the experience more comfortable. Things like pacing the number of presentations to my level of comfort while doing a tour, providing a safe space where I could have had some privacy, involving me in the event’s planning process, providing all the necessary information and preparing the audience would have made a difference.

I believe it is of critical importance when planning public speaking events, national tours, media interviews and other SOA Watch events to always take into consideration the needs of survivors of violence and repression. Education about cultural issues and language needs must be incorporated into every planning process. Involving survivors in decision-making processes will only contribute to their empowerment. In addition, the creation of safe spaces for when survivors are stressed and an environment where the survivor feels supported and respected will contribute to restoring a survivor’s trust in others, and his/her sense of control over what impacts him/her directly.

It is essential to the development of collaborative long-lasting relationships between survivors and the movement to make these efforts."

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