The stories are stitched or scribbled onto squares of red fabric, sometimes a single word, sometimes many, sometimes just a symbol: “I was raped by two or three men while I studied abroad.” “It wasn’t my fault.” “I’m still afraid to be touched.”
Each was crafted by someone who survived sexual abuse or rape, or who cared about someone who did. Many were speaking out about what happened to them for the first time, channeling their anger or hope into a 4-by-4-foot piece of art. Starting Friday, more than 3,000 of these carefully designed messages will be displayed on the National Mall for three days, joined together to create the Monument Quilt. It’s expected to stretch the length of four football fields, the fabric arranged to spell out “Not Alone” and a Spanish translation, “No Estás Solx.”
“Washington has a lot of monuments for survivors and all different groups of people, but not for survivors of sexual violence,” says event organizer Lorena Kourousias, who’s based in New York. “That’s why we call it the Monument Quilt: It’s a monument to the stories of survivors.”
Baltimore-based art and activist collective FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture launched the project in 2013, partnering with organizations across the U.S. and Mexico to host quilt-making workshops. There, trained facilitators would provide a safe environment and one-on-one support, offering survivors self-care activities like coloring or crocheting while they constructed their quilt squares — a sometimes emotionally fraught process. As the quilt has grown, portions have been displayed nearly 50 times in dozens of cities, but the culmination on the National Mall is the only time it will be on display in its entirety.
“Quilt-making is a very intimate practice, and it’s a very creative practice,” says Kalima Young, a Baltimore activist and scholar who’s on the Monument Quilt’s leadership team. She notes that the group has focused on “making sure we have stories and quilts created by those who are the most marginalized, who are often kept out of conversations about sexual violence. So we have stories from male survivors of sexual violence, from LGBTQ survivors, from immigrant populations, migrant workers and those who have been detained at the border.” Allies of survivors have also been encouraged to make quilt squares.
The Monument Quilt provides those who have experienced rape and abuse with a public healing space to come together, grieve and reclaim the narrative around the trauma they experienced. It’s also an opportunity to change how we, as a culture, think and talk about sexual violence — and to support, not shame, survivors, Kourousias says.
“But it made me stronger,” one quilt square reads, loopy blue handwriting sharp against the red backdrop. “I am finding my voice again, and you can too,” another declares. “Take a stand.”
That’s the kind of cathartic release FORCE started the project to achieve, Kourousias says. By using the quilt to tell their stories, people “can release some of the pain and their painful memories of trauma, and we can use it to create a community of support,” she says.
There’s a packed schedule of programming for survivors and allies throughout the event: Teens will lead an open mic about rape on Friday; later, a performance called “Choreographies of Disclosure: What the Mind Forgets” will be staged. On Saturday, Young will be in conversation with Julie Rhoad, the president and CEO of the NAMES Project Foundation — which oversees the enormous AIDS Memorial Quilt — about the importance of public displays of grief and “how we tell hard stories in public.” During a half-day survivor-led policy meeting, Marissa Alexander — a Florida woman who was sentenced to prison for firing a warning shot at her husband, whom she alleged was abusing her — will deliver the keynote presentation. On Sunday, there will be a self-defense workshop and a gathering for secondary survivors.
“We’re going to have entertainers, music and performers throughout the weekend,” Young says. “So it’s kind of a festival, kind of a public healing experience and it’s also a workshop experience.”
She emphasizes that the event isn’t just for those who have personally experienced trauma: Every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which means that most people know someone who’s been affected. “So come and support and bear witness,” Young says. “Being involved in this process has been a great learning experience about how to do work that is intentional and hard but offers connection. It stitches together so many stories that let us really understand that we’re not alone in this discussion of sexual violence.”
National Mall, between 10th and 15th streets; Fri., 1-9 p.m., Sat., 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., free.