My Brother’s Worth: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog
I’m sure we all feel pretty special when we experience a moment of enlightenment. I’m confident that I’m not the only person who realized that there is a true need to develop trauma-informed services for men who experienced childhood sexual abuse, or other childhood traumas. But this moment, for me, was pivotal and life changing.
As a young advocate, I was working for the Women’s Center of Jacksonville in Florida. I took my job, and myself, very seriously. I lived in the environment of “the movement”. I worked for and with women who were pioneers in the struggle for women’s equality and the battle to end violence against women. Everyday, I felt as if I was literally walking the halls of history. I had purpose. I attended my allotment of protests and spoke on my soapbox when given the opportunity. With a fist in the air and a picket sign in the other, I would end sexual violence.
I genuinely carry this enthusiasm and purpose with me to this day. Only today, I carry it better informed and with a wider lens, thanks—in particular—to a group of students in Jacksonville, Florida.
In those days, I was teaching Sexual Violence Prevention Education (to anyone that would listen). My students varied—from professionals interested in improving their programs to sixth graders learning how to assert their boundaries. I felt informed and appreciated by them. Little did I know, the students that would teach me the most would be behind bars.
Every Friday morning I taught two sexual violence awareness and prevention classes for an addiction rehabilitation program at a correctional facility. My first class was a group of 80 men, the second class was comprised of 50 females. We gathered in a small mess hall for 60 minutes to discuss the various types of abuse and how to prevent them. For many, a small room with 80 male inmates might feel very intimidating. I was intimidated by the responsibility and the challenge. Sure, there were times when I felt less than 100 percent safe, but it didn’t take long to create rapport and a safe environment. There were very few instances of inappropriate behavior.
I felt safer than I’ve ever been. I acquired 80 big brothers intent on protecting me from the new entries who were yet to feel the validation and empathy our class provided. Sometimes, a new student would wink, blow me a kiss or call me “baby.” As unsettling as that may seem, I knew I was on the right track when one of the old-timers stood up and said, “We don’t talk to Ms. Martha that way, she is here because she cares about us and reminds us that we are worthy.” New students quickly learned and adopted the same attitude as the others.
Everyday, we closed our classes with a rousing group mantra, “You are my brother and you are worthy.” We yelled, loudly, like we wanted the world to know it. Indeed, we did.
For many, abuse has a way of obliterating the self-worth of the survivor. It was common for students to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame due to the decisions made while in the grip of a numbing addiction. And so the cycle continues. They saw themselves as unworthy, as so many survivors of sexual abuse do.
So by safe environment, I mean to say, a safe space for adult men to accept information about an issue they are mostly held as responsible for, sexual abuse. I walked in with the intention to teach men not to be abusive and to help the women cope.
Looking back, I feel that my lack of awareness was deplorable. Sure, I educated and I validated the oppressive nature of male stereotypes, gender roles and their negative relationship to sexual abuse. I pointed out the social norms that forced men to live up to hyper-masculine ideals, leaving many silent and emotionally stunted.
I was validating to create empathy.
I quickly introduced the female version and its negative stereotypes, and watched them empathize. I saw genuine understanding for women and the effects of sexual violence.
It was a sham. Not intentionally, not with malice. But it was. My intentions were to create a safe space to talk about women and prevent violence against women.
Yet as soon as they were able to identify women as victims (not that many didn’t already), so were they able to identify their own experiences as abusive.
The disclosures started pouring in and despite the program staff’s best intentions, the intensive mental health options were next to minimal. With our eyes now wide open, we carefully created a curricula for healing. Yet, we all knew it wasn’t enough. We knew they were at high risk for relapse and recidivism. We knew we had opened up a can of worms and that there would be no resources for men who had experienced sexual abuse.
We were bringing wounded people into a correctional facility and sending wounded people out.
Our conversations changed, we explored healing, assertive behaviors and self-esteem. For both the men and women, we taught each other to stand again. Regardless of their recent actions, they were worth healing. We didn’t fix the system, we acknowledged a need. I created what I could to address that need. I addressed my own ignorance and I found my worth in the lessons they taught me.
Years later, during an early morning run for coffee I heard a faint yell, “You are my sister, You are worthy! You are worthy!” A repetitive chant seemingly directed at me. As the the sound came closer I saw him, the employee came close and repeated the phrase. I recognized my former student.
I recognized my brother’s worth.
– By Martha Marin, Managing Director for 1in6
Martha is a Colombian native raised in L.A. and South Florida where she received a B.A. in Business Management from the University of North FL. She brings us a unique set of skills acquired from many years of for-profit management and a deep dedication to human rights. As a Program Coordinator for the Women’s Center of Jacksonville and FL Dept. of Health, she taught thousands of students on topics related to the prevention of sexual assault including cyber bullying, LGBTQ/sexual harassment and teen dating violence, as well as human trafficking. Martha is a public speaker, consultant and professional trainer.
Most recently she served as the Chair of the Northeast Florida Human Trafficking Coalition. Her international projects include a large-scale bi-lingual internship for the USAID Scholarship for Economic Education and Development at FL State College at Jacksonville.