By Lindsey Shea
It’s been a full year since my childhood friend, Grace Brown, started Project Unbreakable – or in her words, since Project Unbreakable “happened.” Four years, probably, since the last time we’ve spoken. As much as we’ve both changed since the eighth grade, grown apart and stumbled through our own self-discovery, I can recognize the same virtues – albeit more polished now – that she held as a preteen. Empathy and a great capacity for emotional reflection have always been her strengths. Now, at 20, Grace is one of the most influential young activists in the country. These virtues, combined with her passion for photography, activism, feminism and a determination to lead a meaningful life, created the platform for Unbreakable.
Her Tumblr blog (projectunbreakable.tumblr.com) is raw, moving and impossible to ignore. She photographs survivors of sexual assault – both women and men, of any age, race or gender identity– holding a poster with a handwritten quote from their attacker. Certainly, the project is bold and unfiltered. It does not dilute the intensity of trauma. The subjects of her photographs, with their poignant stories, are so incredibly, jarringly honest that her Tumblr demands a moment of respectful silence upon visiting. “I think my photos are simple, but powerful,” Grace reflects. “I don’t like using any distractions … the point is the person, and the poster, and I want to keep [the focus] on that.” The photo shoot itself even has a unique process. They are mostly very short – only about fifteen minutes – and very quiet, as Grace “just lets the survivor do what they need in terms of writing the poster… a shot or two and then we’re done.” But the heartfelt, drawn-out “thank yous” afterwards last far longer. “That’s the most incredible part of this project- that I get to meet a lot of amazing people!” She smiles.
Inspired by the experience of a close friend, Grace began Project Unbreakable to create a community of support for survivors of sexual assault and allow them to reclaim the words previously used for injury. Initially, she expected to receive harsh criticism for her work, but the project has had a remarkably positive impact. All it takes is one brave Unbreakable participant to inspire another and suddenly the project begins to break through a cultural taboo and transform shame into strength. It is this intimate, shareable emotion that is so apparent in Grace’s photographs and makes the entire project so heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
“We need to make [sexual assault] a topic,” she says, determined to change the largely negligent public response to it in spite of its frequency: “Everyone can talk about cancer, autism, child abuse, even sex trafficking. But no one ever wants to say anything about sexual assault. And by closing it down, that allows it to happen even more.” The statistics vary, especially since these types of crimes are less likely to be reported, but according to the 2008 documentary, Generation M: Misogyny in Media & Culture, 1 in 6 American women will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. “It can happen to everyone, everyone.” Grace winces as she says the words, suffering empathetically. It is all too easy for those who have not suffered to forget how common sexual assault really is.
Wives, girlfriends, children, family members, friends: most likely someone we know has been a victim.
In spite of her modesty, I convince her to share her proudest accomplishment. The list of possibilities is extensive. In the past nine months alone, Grace has been featured by ABC News, MSNBC, spotlighted internationally in the UK’s The Guardian and named by Time Magazine as one of the top 30 Tumblr blogs to follow. These accolades are in addition to over 13,000 likes on Facebook, over 2,500 Twitter followers and another recently launched photography tour across the country and in Europe. However, she doesn’t mention any of these things. Instead, she says: “Sometimes I forget to give myself encouragement, and I forget I’m doing something good and cool… I’ve learned so many life lessons: to be nice to everyone I meet, just because I never know what their life story is. How to be stronger and take criticism. How to define myself and not let others define me. And to be organized!” She laughs, diminishing the real weight of her success, saying, “it sort of feels like it’s happening to another person, and I’m just watching.”
Grace hesitates to predict where the project will be by its second birthday. Personally, she would love to be back in college by next fall. In the meantime, she hopes to discover the elusive balance between being a “normal” twenty-year-old and a barrier-breaking social activist. She says, “It’s OK not to have meaning in every second of my day sometimes. But it’s so important [for our generation] to realize how much we can accomplish. That we are so powerful. We just have to decide how.”
Grace will be visiting D.C. this November speaking and showcasing Project Unbreakable’s photos at American University on November 2 and at George Washington University on November 8.
If you would like to be photographed for Project Unbreakable, please email email@example.com or submit your own photo on the Tumblr page.
Shea is an English Sophomore
[Photo credit: Projectunbreakable.tumblr.com]