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"Survivors as Leaders in the Fight to End Sexual Violence" By Leila Zainab, Co-Director of Survivor Theatre Project


Being a sexual violence survivor is not synonymous with leadership. Often times, we view victims of violence as weak, wounded, broken, and traumatized. Survivors are forced to hide their histories of child sexual abuse, incest, or rape in their work places, dismissed to contend with their healing on their own time. Even when it is a prominent reason why one does the work that they do, they are forced to keep their identity under wraps for fear of making others uncomfortable, and being seen as unprofessional. Some survivors might even fear a negative backlash by their co-workers or superiors for coming out as a survivor, as it could be seen as detrimental to their work ethic or unbiased professionalism. Survivor identity is marginalized, taboo, and not a welcomed piece of anyone’s narrative in work spaces. Survivor Theatre Project does our best to uplift survivors in our organization, especially those that support and participate in our programs.

We have quite a few of these stories within Survivor Theatre Project. Kaia Jackson started off as a participant in the 2012 Performance Project, and is currently staffing Holyoke’s Performance Project as program assistant to co-facilitators Iréne Shaikly and Melissa Redwin. As a young professional in the field of performing arts and healing, Kaia is hungry for leadership opportunities.

“It is healing to be in survivor identified space, and it is rare! It is something I want to continue to support, advocate for, and work to create opportunities for others.”

Kaia studied at Hampshire College, with a concentration in theatre and identity studies. She was interested in learning about performance as a healing tool. Kaia developed her own piece entitled “Let the Body Speak,” a performance that invited people of all genders to speak to their own complex experiences of trauma with their body.

“As a survivor, it is scary to step into leadership. At STP, it is incredible not to feel alone in this work, that my skills are valued. Growing up, being a survivor felt like a weakness. Here, my survivor story is viewed as part of my strength.”

At Survivor Theatre Project, we believe that survivors have the power and capacity to lead the movement to end sexual violence, and to envision a path towards liberation.  We are committed to supporting survivors in taking on leadership roles because we believe that we are capable, strong, rational, and know first hand what survivors need. In doing so, we disrupt elitist models of professionalism, creating an organizational culture of trust, acceptance, community support, and healing for participants, volunteers, folks on our Leadership Team, and our staff. Together, we fight white supremacist patriarchal structures that attempt to hide and isolate us.  We are leading the way towards our collective freedom.



Meet Survivor Theatre Facilitator Iréne Shaikly



Survivors' Circus Tour 2016 By Troupe Director Sarvenaz Moshfegh Asiedu

The Kiva Center was the perfect ending to a fantastic and inspirational run with the Survivors Circus. We were welcomed wholeheartedly and really felt attended to the Kiva frequency.

The performance was once again a one of a kind experience as the players expressed survivor archetypes in greater depth than ever before. The Quiet One drew the audience in with her truthtelling intensity and dance moves; Miss Pussy was in top form, showing the world how to be "vulnerable and strong at the same time"; and  Spider Lady's cathartic flesh eating was as delectable as ever.

It was clear to me in the "talk back" that no detail was lost on this audience!  Many thoughtful comments were shared as people describe their resonance with the Survivor Circus archetypes.

The participants in the workshop were playful and willing to explore themselves as well as hold space for others. It truly was a groundbreaking experience to facilitate the creation of new circus characters and guide them through the fog. Leila and I facilitated together for the first time seamlessly.

It has been a life changing experience for me to work together with everyone on this project. I believe more than ever in healing with the creative force, mind/body/spirit. "Pick up your mind and go!"



Reflections on Facilitation at "My Sister's House" by STP Troupe Director Sarvenaz Moshfegh Asiedu


Over 90 percent of incarcerated women have reported experiencing sexual violence. Similar  percentages apply to women who are struggling with addiction.  Although addiction and incarceration has not played a part in my personal survivor story, it has in most of the men and women I have gotten to know through my brief professional and academic career in what we call “the mental health field”; A field that systematically ignores and pathologizes survivors of sexual violence.

Being a facilitator and touring company director with Survivor Theatre Project for the last two seasons, has been a pivotal experience for me as a survivor, artist and academic. Exploring the survivor experience through theatre in STP has been a crossroads where many aspects of my mind, body and spirit are able to join; my personal survivor story, my professional training in Drama, Expressive Arts Therapy and Trauma-informed approaches to healing, along with the experiences, wisdom and hope of so many survivors I have shared space with in the various roles I have played throughout my lifetime.

Last season, I supported the STP touring company in creating and performing, “Called to Speak”.  At the time I was employed as a “Female Treatment Specialist” through Adcare Criminal Justice Services at the Boston office of Community Corrections.  The touring company was able to perform for the women mandated to the O.C.C. for drug treatment.  This experience led into plans to bring STP to a recovery community in the Boston area.

For 12 weeks, I spent Mondays from 9-10:30 a.m. at “My Sister's House”, a state-funded recovery program for women struggling with substance addiction. As is common in most government-funded recovery programs, the majority of clients are survivors of both the Criminal Injustice System, and sexual violence. For 12 weeks we got to know each other, played theatre games, made art, created puppets, read tarot cards, and broke silence about sexual violence.

The highlight of this experience for me was at the premier for “Survivors' Circus; Journey Through the Fog”, when all the women showed up.  “We took a vote last night, and decided to come,” one of them told me. Together, they made their way downtown to Emerson College  from Roxbury on the bus to see the show.  One of the women in my group had even suffered a stroke a few weeks earlier; she was there. THAT is the solidarity and love that Survivor Theatre Project inspires.

My Irish, African-American, Latina and Russian Sisters from “My Sister's House” sat in V.I.P front row seating, wide-eyed through the entire show and talk back.  “That was me, up there,”,one woman said, “I cried through the whole thing. Thank you.” 

Cast members of “The Survivors' Circus,” Noemi Paz and Vanity Reyes volunteered to visit the group the weeks following the show to share more about their journeys as artists and as survivors.  It was evident that after seeing the performance, women in the group felt even safer sharing their survivor stories. The power of STP is the person-to-person connections.  We are all in this together.

To all of my sisters at “My Sister's House”, thank you for sharing your jokes, your horrors and most of all, your hearts.  

Your friend ‘till the end, 


Leila Zainab, Stepping Into My Fearless Self

I wasn’t always a survivor. “Survivor” is a role, a title, an energy I have stepped into upon joining the Survivor Theatre Project. I was seven years old when I was first molested by my father, or at least that was the earliest that I can remember. Growing up, the violence in my home was everywhere.  We were undocumented immigrants in a constant state of financial instability. The stress in our home was palpable. My parents had 4 jobs between the two of them, and almost never slept. I spent my days escaping into stories. My after-school theatre program was where I found refuge from the chaos of it all. For me, the sexual violence was not just a single act, it was often mixed with elements of physical and emotional violence, fear, abuse, yelling, manipulation, and aggression. All the while, I was silenced. As an undocumented immigrant, I was told that I was not able to tell the authorities for fear of deportation. It was a stifling dynamic, and one that is all too common.  

As part of my healing and empowerment, I now take every opportunity I can to speak my story
openly and confidently. Survivor Theatre Project has offered me the platform to step into my fearless self; the part of me that knows that sharing my story is part of my own healing, as well as what our world needs in order to eradicate sexual violence at its roots. STP has shown me that I can be proud of my story, that I am not alone, and that others might be inspired to speak out, too! Most importantly, speaking my story has allowed me to better understand the dynamics of violence, especially how it manifested in my own home. By speaking it, I come to know my story and experience so well, that even in the face of the naysayers, I grow stronger, and ultimately stand more firmly in my truth.