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How One Advocate Uses Storytelling To Change The Conversation On Sexual Assault

Tawnya Crazier is one of more than 30 presenters offering training during the three-day Sexual Assault Summit, which  runs Nov. 10 - 12 in the University Center on the University of Montana campus in Missoula.

Ira Glass is certainly aware of the phenomenal success of his radio program and podcast, "This American Life." But he probably doesn’t know he has changed the dialogue about sexual assault in Montana.

"I’ve listened to episodes where I’m just crying by the end because I identify with the characters."

That’s Tawnya Cazier, a graduate student in Social Work at the University of Montana, and an advocate for survivors of sexual assault. She is one of more than 30 presenters in the fourth annual Not In Our State Sexual Assault Summit happening in Missoula Sunday evening through Tuesday.

"And what’s so profound about that is that I may never have had that experience. I may never have had someone vandalize my home because of racism. But the way that they tell these stories makes me feel very connected to the people in these stories."

When Cazier first became a sexual assault advocate, she was dedicated and passionate. But she struggled to help people understand the survivor’s point of view. And she encountered a lot of judgments from people who said things like: “Oh, you know, rape wouldn’t happen if a woman wouldn’t dress that way.” Or they may say, “That doesn’t really happen in our community.”

At first, she tried using facts and statistics to encourage empathy.

“One in three women are sexually assaulted. And people would say, 'Well I don’t know anybody who was sexually assaulted so that can’t be true.' And if I would say, 'Well, you know, a woman should be able to make choices,' and someone might say, 'Well, we know how men are.' And the conversation just became very adversarial really quickly and I wouldn’t come away feeling like I had communicated well and often the other person would feel as though they’d been judged for expressing an opinion. So I learned very quickly that that was not a good approach to take with people."

And then Cazier attended an event in which Ira Glass talked about how his staff produces "This American Life" stories.

"They construct them with a series of actions, followed by a reflection: action, action, action, reflection. As you’re moving through those actions, there will usually be a moment where the teller of the story looks back at the actions and has a reflection. Kind of an aha moment or something surprising that they realized through that story. Through the use of stories and then that moment of reflection, you’re really sharing insight. And you’re sharing it in a way where your listener wants to move through the story with you. So when you get to that moment of insight, they also get to have that aha moment."

Maybe, she thought, people could stop judging and feel empathy for sexual assault survivors if they heard a story that delivered an aha moment for them.

"I went into my undergrad believing that stories really profoundly affected people. And the more I listened to "This American Life", I realized that not just Ira Glass but his staff also believed that."

So she put together a presentation based on "This American Life" techniques and began experimenting.

One day Cazier had a chance conversation with a woman at Missoula College who had read Jon Krakauer’s book "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town". The woman said, "You know I just think that that girl… you know she shouldn’t have been drinking and going to a party. What did she think was going to happen? We know how guys are and she just put herself in that situation."

They were only together for a few minutes, but Cazier had time to tell a very short story about the woman who was raped. Cazier said:

"I think that she went out to have a nice time with her friends, to be around lots of people. And I think she thought people would watch out for her. I think she thought that she could go out and enjoy herself and be safe. Because I think that’s all we want."

The judgmental woman was quiet for a moment, and then, as Cazier remembers, she responded thoughtfully.

"She said, 'I’d never thought of it that way. Yeah. That makes sense.' And it was a great interaction. It was completely different than an interaction I may have had if I had just brought up facts and figures and statistics. And in that story, I got to tell her that action, action, action, reflection and also identify the wants and needs of the individual in that story. And that really spoke to her.”

Teaching other people to use stories to overcome preconceived ideas about interpersonal violence is part of what Tawnya  Cazier will be doing during the Sexual Assault Summit.

"My goal is to teach people who want to be advocates, people who want to address this issue—no matter where they’re from or what their profession is—to teach them and walk them through how you construct a story in that way and why that’s important, and why it works. I also talk about the research behind it and how we connect with individuals and it develops empathy, which actually causes a biological response. And so, we have a lot of things on our side to be able to communicate in that way and have it be effective."

The mission of fourth annual Not in Our State Sexual Assault Summit is to provide higher education leaders and community professionals with educational opportunities. The event begins with a free screening of The Hunting Ground, an expose about rape crimes on U.S. college campuses. During Monday and Tuesday sessions, participants will learn about sexual violence prevention and advocacy.

"I think about the woman from Missoula College and there is no doubt in my mind that at some point in the future somebody else who’s read the book says very similar things to what she said. And if she tells five friends, 'You know I think that woman wanted safety…' Even if only two of them listen, then three more people have been affected by that one tiny little conversation I had," Cazier says. "And that is my goal—to create a network of people who think differently about the issue of sexual assault."

You can find the summit’s schedule of events and presenter bios here. If you see any sessions you’d like to attend, you are welcome to sit in. Cazier’s storytelling workshop is scheduled for Monday at 10:00 a.m.

"I’ll quote Ira Glass, because why not," Cazier adds. "And he said, 'Story goes somewhere deep inside where reason cannot go.' And that’s true. Sometimes the reasoning won’t work with someone. At all. Most people. But a story will touch deeply."

Chérie Newman is an arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. Her weekly literary program, The Write Question, is broadcast on several public radio stations, and available online at and
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