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Unbreakable Woman: Venkayla Haynes
by Hannah Seda
Venkayla Haynes is our runner-up in the Cal-EZ 2017 Unbreakable Awards—a national search to find #Unbreakable women making a difference through leadership, through pursuing personal entrepreneurial goals, or through health and fitness initiatives that impact individuals and communities. At 22 years old, Venkayla is an accomplished, outspoken advocate against sexual assault and gender-based violence. We spoke with Kayla recently to learn more about what motivates her and why she is committed to advocating for gender-based violence issues. Q: In your application, you mentioned that your friends helped motivate you to become an activist. But how did it really start for you? When did you choose it? Was there a moment? Did someone say something? A: I went to an event called “Let it Glow” at Spelman where you could tell your domestic violence or sexual abuse stories. I decided I wanted to tell my story at the event. I invited my friends because I wanted them to be in that space so they could know why I am the way I am. As I told my story, I was crying and shaking. And when I finished, it was like a weight had been lifted from me. And it was then that I thought I should start to help other people. My friends inspired me just by saying that I should share my story with the world. Q: You wrote about a fellow Spelman student who told her sexual assault story via Twitter and it went viral—the hashtag was #RapedAtSpellman. You said that you and fellow student activist decided to protest. And it led to students and faculty showing up to voice opinions—and some even sharing their stories. In what ways were you involved with this protest? A: I helped organize the protest: RapedatSpelman. It went extremely viral on social. It caught national media attention from big outlets such as Teen Vogue, CNN, Essence, JET Magazine. In the days leading up
, we put a lot of thought into organizing the protest itself. After the story was posted to Twitter, we had a plan to meet up and plan that night. We put signs together, we decided that we were going to wear all black. We went over the plan for the silent protest, the speak out, and how we were going to meet with the administration. We went over all the details.
Q: What’s it like knowing that you were an active part of that moment?
A: It’s very inspiring to know that I can have an impact on activism on campus. It’s a lot to handle, but at the end of the day, I knew it was for the right reasons. And I knew I could use my voice to help others who didn’t want to come out and share their stories or who were struggling with what happened to them.
Q: You said your personal initiative mainly focuses on helping survivors at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) since they’re frequently left out of the conversation. We wanted to give you a moment, and the space, to shed a little light on that topic if you’d like. Is there anything you’d like the people who’ll be reading this interview to know about sexual assault and gender-based violence at HBCU’s?
A: A lot of times when we come across sexual assault stories, or propose bills that affect campus rape culture, we often leave HBCUs out of the conversation. As a culture, we are a lot more focused on white women and the schools in which they attend and how bills and campus rape culture affect them. And that’s important, but it’s only a fraction of the communities that deal with sexual assault and gender based violence.
The media doesn’t often represent the communities outside the normative category. And it’s not just the black community either. We rarely talk about the disabled community, or the LGBTQ community. The justice system is not built to protect these communities, and that makes people within them afraid to come forward. A sufficient conversation on these issues includes these communities. We can’t forget them.
Q: Do you feel like a voice for some of these communities, or for women who feel as though they can’t come forward?
A: I feel like it comes with the territory. I can speak for black women because I am a black woman. I can be that voice for them, but at the same time, I can’t tell all of their stories because I’m not them and the trauma each individual experiences is always different. And especially the LGBT community. I have friends and connections to that community, but I am not a member of that community. But I can make sure that they are always included in that conversation and we steer away from heteronormative conversations.
Q: You’ve been on this journey of advocacy and stopping sexual assault and gender based violence. Can you talk about some of your challenges in being an activist? What were those tough moments, and how do you overcome them?
A: I received pushback from certain schools because they didn’t want to address the issue, which was hard for me to deal with. Helping survivors on campus can be hard sometimes, too. They look to me for the answer and guidance. Sometimes I don’t know how—or have time—to practice self care. It impacts my mental health. It can be stressful.
Q: Are there times when you think about giving up? How do you deal with that?
A: I try to remind myself that it’s not always about me. I also go to counseling and talk to friends about it. There are times that I want to give up, but I remember that I have to keep going and remember that I'm speaking for those who are unable to come forward out of fear. There are some days that I feel set back. Some days I have to turn my phone off and stay away from social media. I’ll also journal, and eat, and sleep—take care of myself.
Q: Outside of activism, you’re dedicated to community service. You’ve volunteered to plant trees in your city, you’ve helped the homeless, you tutor students both in the United States and in Africa, and you’re a Peace Corps Campus Ambassador—and that’s just naming a few! To people out there who want to be involved, whether it’s activism or community involvement—but don’t know where to begin, or think it’s too hard—what would you to say to them?
A: It’s about taking the time to find what you’re passionate about. If your heart isn’t in volunteering or community service, then you’re not really going to make an impact. Find what calls to you, what you’re passionate about. Nobody can do what you’re called to do better than you can.
Q: At the end of your Unbreakable application, you wrote that you hoped to one day become the President of the United States. And in the last few years, you’ve met the now former Vice President Joe Biden, you’ve received a letter from then President Barack Obama, and you’ve even been invited to the White House. Can you tell me about that experience? What’s it like to be acknowledged in that way?
A: It was the best experience of my life. To know that the leaders of my country were invested in the lives of survivors was amazing. I appreciate what they’re doing to address sexual assault, even while out of office. It inspires me to continue to do more. When Vice President Joe Biden visited the Atlanta University Center, I thought I would just be involved in the planning process. I didn’t know that I was going to meet him.
<Not only did Venkayla speak at the event, she also had the honor of introducing Biden>
I was telling my story to everyone and on-camera for the first time—it was a lot. But to have someone so powerful behind me meant a lot. I'll never forget getting a hug and kiss on the cheek from Joe Biden and him telling me, “You're an amazing person and I admire what you do.”
<That wasn’t the only good advice Venkayla received. In a Twitter chat, Obama’s then senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, reached out to Venkayla when Venkayla expressed that she’d like to run for president one day.>
She said to continue to fight for the things that you’re passionate about and run for president.
<Venkaya says that just recently, Jarrett wrote her on Instagram.>
She wrote me on Instagram and told me she’s proud and inspired by me. … I was crying and smiling at the same time. It’s so amazing to know you’re being watched by such powerful people.
Q: Is there an action, or one particular action, you believe every woman can take to support women who’ve experienced sexual assault?
A: Believe them when they tell you they’ve been sexually assaulted. That's the number one thing every survivor wants to hear and it's a start to the movement of fighting against sexual assault. Also recognizing that rape culture is real.
Q: You are barely into your twenties, and yet you seem to have devoted your life to ending sexual assault. In a few short years time, you’ve done more work for the greater good than most people do in a lifetime. What’s it like to wake up every morning knowing you’ve made a difference? That yours was a voice that was heard?
A: Knowing that I inspired a lot of people motivates me to continue to do great things. I feel accomplished and empowered and happy to know that I’m making a difference in a positive way. A negative past can turn into a positive future.
Q: We believe sexual assault is a really important topic to bring into the light. What else should we cover in this conversation? Is there something we haven’t asked about that you want to be sure people understand?
A: Sexual assault isn’t just a women’s issue. It can happen between people of the same sex or people who don’t identify as a man or a woman—people who are non-binary.We also often question the credibility of the survivor rather than the accused. We need to stop blaming victims and adding to rape culture.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? Or tell people about you or your work?
A: I’m not invested in this work because I want opportunities or because I want to gain recognition. I want to continue to help people who are like me. People who’ve experienced what I’ve experienced, who’ve dealt with anger, trust issues, depression, and suicide attempts. And I want to empower people and let them know that it will get better. I will continue to fight for survivors as long as I’m alive. I’ll always be dedicated, and my love for survivors and fighting for what’s right will never stop.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault or gender-based crime, the following resources may be helpful:
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673)