On November 27th, 2012 we asked a room of thirty-three 10th graders, “How many of you know someone who has been affected by sexual assault or sexual abuse?” Thirty-three hands slowly raised into the air. “And how many of you know someone who is doing something to help?” Five hands. “And why do you think there is such a big difference between the number of hands that just went up?” The wisdom from the room was vast, and the answers that sprung from this heavy line of questions all led to the same place.
When a problem is so big, we feel it is out of our control.
We don’t know where to begin.
No action we take is going to make a big enough difference.
We don’t understand the issue enough to be able to help.
We feel powerless.
Their answers were echoes of the conversation at large that has lead Jeans 4 Justice in the direction of empowering leaders to create a world that is so healthy, so safe, and so interconnected that sexual and relationship violence no longer exist…and to begin by creating that change inside of themselves.
When Jeans 4 Justice began as a fashion and art-centered campaign in 2006, our intention was to raise awareness about sexual violence in a fun and inspiring way, while raising funds to support child and adolescent survivors. The unexpected “side-effects” were the outpouring of personal stories from the models, artists, and fashion designers who stepped into their contribution, and the healing impact that being in contribution seemed to have on many of the people who came forward. I was blown away, and up until that point had never realized how prevalent of an issue this was, even though I had personally seen the impact in my own life.
We began noticing that the majority of these stories occurred when people were in middle school, high school, and college. My heart felt deep compassion hearing these stories and it became clear that Jeans 4 Justice had two main purposes – healing and prevention – but also that our approach was going to be a little different from that of our peers doing similar work in coalitions and crisis centers. We were new on the scene, but we had a few huge things working in our favor: passion, courage, a deep belief that change is possible, and a certain “cool” factor that made people WANT to engage.
We started our prevention work by asking hundreds of sexual assault survivors what they thought would have created an interruption in the behavioral and social patterns leading up to their experiences. We also asked what they wished they had access to in the time following as they navigated not only their healing, but the acknowledgment of what had happened. As space was created for their memories to turn into offerings, their answers became our starting point. We decided that since sexual and relationship violence are social issues, we needed to focus on social change. We made a choice not to focus on what not to do, and not even what to do. We decided to focus on who to be. We have listened to the stories and are writing a new one. A story in which the villains are not the
perpetrators, but the social and cultural containers that sustain apathy, indifference, judgment and blame that allow violence to exist.
For some, that may be hard to hear, but the truth is that the more we place blame on one another, the easier it is to take ourselves out of the equation, and that is when we feel powerless. For the deepest level of social change to occur, we must all to step into our power as leaders and define the role we want to play in the story. As an organization, we have become the platform for a cast of characters to choose their level of engagement, and decide who they want to be as they take their personal transformation, level of leadership, and path of action and expression as far as they desire.
Over the past three years, we have created circles in high schools, colleges, and the greater community that over time have become places of deep trust, compassion, freedom, truth and acceptance. We are focusing our energy, funding, and resources on investing in leaders who want to be social change endorsers and cultivating their capacity to create ripples of change in their spheres of influence. In shifting the conversation from “What do you want to end?” to “What do you want to create?,” we have made our mission accessible to everyone who wants to create a better world.
Today, Jeans 4 Justice stands in solidarity with V-Day, the One Billion Rising movement, and all of the advocates, activists, thought leaders, organizations, artists, and innovators who are committed to this collective vision. We know that this change is possible if we all rise up together. With one billion women and girls affected, as well as millions of men and boys, sexual and relationship violence is an epidemic…and all of us have somehow been influenced by its impact.
Together we are leveraged, capable, and empowered. Now is the time to transform ignorance into awareness, apathy into compassion, and blame into personal responsibility to create our own solution.
By believing in a new possibility and backing that belief up with committed action, we can create a new reality.
Jessica Johnson is the founder and CEO of Jeans 4 Justice, an organization for social change named for a grassroots campaign that responded to a 1999 Italian High Court case in which a rape conviction was overturned because the victim was wearing jeans. (The court concluded, “It is common knowledge…that jeans cannot even be partly removed without the effective help of the person wearing them…and it is impossible if the victim is struggling with all her might.”) Since its inception in 2006, J4J has engaged the worlds of fashion and art, in partnership with designers, innovators, survivors, and advocates, to provide access to healing and to give voice to an issue that affects all people, regardless of their age, race, gender, religion or ethnicity. Jessica has been creating social change in San Diego for almost a decade, beginning with the founding of Consciously Social, continuing with her work at The Center for Community Solutions, and for the last seven years with Jeans 4 Justice. She will be dancing on February 14, 2013.