Working as an artist-in-residence at the House of Ruth Maryland, Hannah Brancato met a survivor of sexual violence who told her a moving story. The woman had been in the grocery store and had an epiphany that there likely were dozens of other survivors in the same store who had no way of knowing each other or connecting.
The story “shocked” Brancato into a realization.
“Even though we’ve made so much progress—it’s no longer socially acceptable to commit domestic violence or sexual assault—survivors are still struggling,” says Brancato. “There’s still a public stigma and shame and so too many people are suffering privately. I left the House of Ruth feeling that the conversations that happened inside the shelter really needed to happen outside the walls.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. And trans people experience higher rates of intimate partner violence than cis people, Brancato says.
Brancato, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, will use her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to launch Gather Together: a Survivor Support Network, which will work to better support survivors and transform cultural attitudes to prevent rape and abuse. The diverse group of survivors of rape and abuse will organize community dialogues and events and train individuals to design and implement their own public campaigns or other creative and highly visible platforms for community-based activism and healing.
“The projects can take a lot of different forms but will mostly focus on some kind of public art,” Brancato says. “Art is a powerful tool for healing. It’s therapeutic to tell your story but also to make something with your hands and change the public narrative.”
Brancato says she “feels strongly about public places.”
“Monuments provide a space for survivors of war, for example, to connect with the community,” she notes. “We need to have spaces like that for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. There are more survivors of sexual or domestic violence than there are of war. We have private spaces to heal. But we do not have a lot of models for public ones and the survivors should be the ones to come up with what those look like.”
Herself a survivor of dating violence, Brancato, 30, is a co-founder of her own national healing project—the Monument Quilt, a growing collection of messages from thousands of survivors of rape and sexual abuse across the country. The quilt ultimately will blanket the National Mall.
Through Gather Together, survivors of all genders will be paired with mentors. Together, they will work on advocacy and leadership-building by leading Monument Quilt workshops in their own communities. The network of survivors also will create a book of poetry with TurnAround, Inc., a survivor-based nonprofit that is hosting Brancato’s project. And they will develop their own ideas to help more people become aware of the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence.
“But first and foremost, this is about survivors reconnecting with their community,” says Brancato, who also is co-founder and co-director of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, an artistic collaborative that uses public art and social media to uplift survivors and promote consent. Brancato and co-founder Rebecca Nagle came up with the idea for the Monument Quilt “because sexual violence often brings about isolation and self-doubt.”
That self-doubt too often keeps the lifelong practice of healing buried, she says, and sometimes leads to further issues such as addiction, incarceration and cycles of abusive relationships.
“We need to disrupt the silence that shrouds the experiences of survivors,” Brancato says. “Having more survivor-led dialogue around sexual violence—in public spaces—is a powerful way to do that.”