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An interview with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center / by Isis Madrid

For the fourth year, all of the proceeds from Smash It Dead Fest will benefit the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a 41-year-old center providing free services and resources to survivors; the center is dedicated to healing, awareness, and social change. In advance of the festival, we spoke to Community Outreach Manager Meg Bossong about the services provided by BARCC, the importance of community activism, and what you can do in your everyday life to encourage mindfulness about the realities of rape culture and sexual violence.

The Media: Could you please tell me about the roots of BARCC? How it got started and how it grew into the established organization it is today?

Meg Bossong: Our 41st birthday is March 23rd, so the timing of this is really cool. We were founded as an all-volunteer organization. Our services and the way we approach sexual violence have always been informed by the experiences of survivors and the experiences of people in the community. Which I think fits with that kind of DIY punk ethic, and is the thing that resonates with the punk community and makes us a really good fit for this event.

All animations by Faye Orlove. Statistics from this BARCC fact sheet.*

Since it’s almost your anniversary, could you tell me a little bit about the founders of BARCC?

BARCC was founded by a group of all women, out of the Cambridge Women’s Center. It really grew out of the activism of the early 1970s, kind of emerging from the civil rights movement and the anti-poverty movements. That particular wave of the feminist movement really took a look at sexual violence and how at that time particularly female survivors of sexual violence were being treated by systems like the police, the medical system, by schools and their own families and friends. And then saying, “well this is impacting a lot of people” and saying “there is something very wrong with how we’re looking at this” and how we’re treating people and wanting to make those systems better.

You provide a lot of different types of services to the community on various levels and of different scopes. What are the specific ways that BARCC works to improve Boston’s communities?

One of our first services and what I think is sort of the lynchpin of a lot of our other services is our 24-hour lifeline. Really, that has always been and continues to be available to anyone who is impacted by sexual violence. So that may be survivors, but it may also be friends, family, partners of survivors. We increasingly get calls from service providers. So someone who says, “You know, I’m a guidance counselor and there’s this student that I’m really worried about. I think something’s going on with them. I think it maybe be related to sexual abuse. Could you talk to me about how to ask them about that?” So that’s our hotline.

We also provide 24-hour medical accompaniment services. When people go to hospitals to have evidence collection done, we will automatically send an advocate to seven hospitals in the Boston area. The role of that advocate is to meet survivors who have been very recently assaulted and who want medical care and evidence collection and just talk with them about what they can expect from the process and what the next steps are if they want to take next steps. Sometimes it’s even as simple as, “My best friend is out in the waiting room and I’m fine but can you go talk to them?” So they do a lot of different stuff like that.

Then our in-office services—we have individual and group counseling services that are totally free. Those are available to not just survivors. We have significant others groups for parents or partners or friends to talk about the impact on them when someone they care about has been assaulted.

We also have legal advocacy services, which help people navigate the legal resources that are available to them. So it could be talking with them about their criminal legal options -- ‘What police department would I report to?,’ ‘What kind of questions will they ask me?,’ ‘Do I have to participate in an investigation if I report?’ It could also mean civil legal options. For example a person had said ‘the lock on my apartment is broken’ to the landlord and the landlord had ignored them. Their apartment was broken into by someone that lived in same building and they were sexually assaulted by that person. So our legal advocates help them understand that they actually have civil legal rights. There was a problem—a safety issue—and your landlord didn't fix it when you asked them to. So pursuing civil legal options, understanding things around restraining orders, breaking leases, things like that.

We also have a case management program, which helps people navigate all of the other systems that you sometimes get into contact with if you’ve been a survivor. That could be around accessing victim compensation. Which, I’ll give you an example... That could mean ‘I need to see follow up mental health counseling after the short term counseling is done at BARCC but my health insurance doesn’t cover mental health counseling.’ So someone could use victim compensation funds to pay for that. Our case managers would help them apply for that, or if someone can’t work, helping them get some benefits like SNAP or temporary benefits just to get them through a period when they’re not able to work.

So those are our in-office services. We also have volunteer programs. Most of our hotline and medical accompaniment programs are provided by volunteers. Most of our education programming is provided by volunteers. We do a lot of community outreach and professional training and policy work as well.

Obviously BARCC does a lot to support victims and you pull a lot from their experiences to inform your aid of future victims. A big focus of Smash it Dead is to bring awareness to rape culture. Its existence is certainly nothing new but it’s reached a place in the popular vernacular over the past few years, unfortunately, because its had to. But on the other hand, it’s a positive thing because you have to have conversations about an issue to work through it. You do a lot of necessary reactionary work, can you tell me a bit about the preventative work you do to change things from the bottom up?

That’s critical, obviously. We believe that anytime there is an assault there should be impeccable services available to anyone, but prevention is really the key. I mean that’s our goal, and eventually ideally we’d be able to put our client services on the back burner because it’s happening so little. But that’s generations in advance.

So, rape culture is something that we can understand. There are elements of our culture and how we interact and ideologies that whether we’re conscious of it or not we’re making it easier for people to victimize others. So that can be a little slippery to understand in practice. You know you can say, ‘yeah I get that that’s true but what does that look like?’ So a big challenge has been being able to pin down ‘what does rape culture look like in practice?’ We approach that in a lot of different ways. We have programming for early childhood educators and parents of young children and that’s really focused on working with adults to create an environment of safety for children. You know, it’s really adults who are responsible for creating an environment that’s safe for young people but also teaching them and building preventative factors against perpetration and respect for boundaries. And how do you actually model respect for boundaries for children and young adults?

So that’s one piece of it. Another piece is the work we've done with bars. We have a Bar Bystander program that has worked with bar staff and management to say ‘you know, how do you understand what’s going on with alcohol-involved sexual assault? Let’s talk about the environment in your bar and how you can change that to send a message of safety and what’s acceptable.’

So it’s kind of isolating these areas where we’re saying, “How does rape culture look here? And what needs to be changed to tell people that this is not an environment that’s tolerant of sexual violence?”

How would you say that the rape culture discussion has evolved over the past few years?

Yeah, I think there’s a lot more awareness of the idea. What you're fighting against when you're talking about rape culture is that you’re trying to push back against this idea that rape is kind of this inevitable but unknowable thing that happens between two people. And it’s like alchemy and we don't really understand it and it’s just sort of inevitable. And that’s what you're pushing back against when you’re trying to say, ‘Actually, here’s what we have learned about how sexual violence is happening.’ We can learn from what survivors are saying to us about their experiences. And this is how we make changes to that. This is how we help people who are at high risk of offending to live more safely in the community. That’s the goal. It’s not to banish people from our communities after they’ve committed assault. It’s trying to set up a community that helps them live safely before they’d do anything that harms someone else.

What are some smaller ways, in day to day life, that mindful individuals can address rape culture and problematic behaviors they encounter in order to spark an ongoing dialogue in their community?

That’s tough because different contexts depend on different kinds of involvement. People would respond differently to rape culture manifesting in their family than they would to it in their office, probably.

A general thing that I think is applicable to all settings and all “awareness levels” is to think of all the ways you want to model respect for your own and others’ boundaries in your life, and all the ways you expect people around you to demonstrate their respect for boundaries. Maybe that’s verbally—around language to describe people, or jokes—and maybe it’s physical, not touching people, even in non-sexual ways, when they don’t want to be, or cajoling people into doing things they don’t want to do.

What are some big challenges and big rewards that BARCC experiences, daily as well as over the long haul?

In different ways we are bearing witness to and holding a lot of pain. And whether that's individual pain or whether that’s community pain, that is a challenge. But I also think that one of the real inspiring things is that we, on both an individual and a societal level, really get to see things change. We’ve gotten to see people feel safe again. In their bodies, in their relationships and from a community standpoint. I think even in the last five years the way that we talk about sexual violence has changed and evolved for the better.

What are some ways that community members can get involved with BARCC?

We have three very robust volunteer programs that are providing services, but that’s a huge level of time and energy commitment. So we’re trying to spend a lot of time figuring out “what are ways that people can be involved in everyday ways? How can we push out information about what’s going on in the community? Where can we find opportunities for people to get involved in events that their community is organizing?”

I think Smash It Dead is a great example of the punk community in Boston saying, “Not only is this an important issue, but we want our concert spaces and we want our social spaces to be really safe.” So finding ways to support that energy and that activism. It’s not just that we want people’s interactions with their doctors to be awesome. We want people to be able to enjoy shows and social time with people who they share interests with and have those spaces be safe as well.

What do donations from events like Smash it Dead go towards?

All of our services are completely free. And they are free because we know that people who are already vulnerable economically – that is something that often makes people think that they are easier to victimize. Also because it’s related to people’s privacy and their confidentiality. People should be able to access high quality services without having to give up a lot of personal information. So there is both an ideological aspect and also a practical one. So really donations go to keeping our services free for people.

* All language from these statistics is pulled directly from BARCC's report. Though we do disagree with the ways this language promotes socially constructed binaries, we think these are important statistics.

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