A Love Letter to Students Surviving Sexual Violence

As we near the end of spring semester, students in both my “Contemplative Writing” and “Writing for Social Justice” courses are pulling together projects to make interventions in some way. Several students are addressing rape culture, and one student is compiling a book of letters by and for survivors of sexual violence. She hopes that others at our university will read the letters, write additional ones, and add threaded response—facilitating healing through storytelling and solidarity-building.

I agreed to write a letter for her book, and I share that letter here with the hope that it speaks to others engaged with similar healing, storytelling, and solidarity-building work:

Dear Reader,

Every semester I’ve taught, students have shared with me stories of sexual violence and survival.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve experienced everyday enactments of rape culture.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve seen sexual violence create new wounds and rip open old ones.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve raged at limited and lacking response.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve been encouraged by incredible resilience and creative healing.

These words are too few and do too little, but with a commitment to justice, I say to readers and to your friends-colleagues-peers who have experienced sexual violence:

I hear you. I see you. I believe you.

I hurt with you. I learn alongside you. I speak and write UP for you. I advocate for change. I call violence violence. I build critical imagination to envision more equitable ways of being.

I write as a professor who carries with me story upon story of sexual violence that I’ve been called to witness. I carry my own #metoo stories alongside those of family, friends, colleagues, and students. I’m learning how to hold these stories as gifted memories rather than weight holding me down, and I’m learning to leverage these stories toward collective healing, truth-telling, reckoning, and liberation. These stories matter, and so do we.

With fierce love keeping hope alive,

A Feminist Educator

Blogging is often always a process of countering perfectionism and sharing words that feel not-ready, not-right, and not-refined. Writing this letter, however, twisted me in knots, as there are never ready, right, or refined words to speak into the violence I know many students are experiencing and even perpetuating.

So, I share this letter with Reiki, love, and mantras:

May these words do some good.
May what’s still unsaid be heard and healed.
May this offering reach those who desire/need it.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence,” “Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Rape Culture,” and “What Is Justice?” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

5 TED Talks for Developing Emotional Literacies for Racial Justice

Today marks the final day of the 40-day practice I’ve been leading for a local, predominantly-white church on developing emotional literacies. We’ve been focused on building and strengthening emotional awarenesses, knowledges, intelligences, and response-abilities for racial justice. As part of this practice, I’ve been sharing resources, including TED talks that provide language for understanding emotional literacies.

View of TED.com Talks Search Page

In this post, I share five of these talks that are helpful for acknowledging a fuller emotional range, for building emotional courage, and for leveraging emotions to take action.

1. Jay Smooth’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Talking about Race”:

Hip-hop DJ, cultural commentator, and videoblogger at illdoctrine.com, Jay Smooth breaks things down in a really accessible, engaging way. In this talk, he offers a simple-yet-powerful framework for thinking about feedback on racist beliefs and actions as similar to having something stuck in your teeth. Lowering the emotional stakes can help with countering white fragility, resistance, or defensiveness that block this work.

2. Susan David’s “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage”:

Psychologist Susan David defines emotional courage, rigidity, and agility in this talk, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging rather than denying tough emotions. She shows the individual and systemic harm that comes from denial, reflecting on experiences of processing her father’s death and growing up in white suburbs of Apartheid South Africa.

3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”:

One way to notice more in everyday life is to ask the question: “What single story am I being told about _______?” Then fill in the blank with just about anything: from the story of normative skin color told by bandaids to the story of imagined business leadership (restricted by race, class, and gender) told by clipart. Author Chimamanda Adichie’s talk is especially helpful for thinking about the narratives we’ve inherited and hold within ourselves. To rewrite narratives, we need to make them visible and to see the danger of continuing to tell them.

4. Valarie Kaur’s “3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage”:

How does rage impact the capacity to love? Civil rights attorney, activist, and filmmaker Valerie Kaur describes fierce, revolutionary love as an “antidote to nationalism, polarization, and hate.” She describes revolutionary love as the “call of our times” and as the work of “birthing a new future.” Kaur attends to the connections of anger and joy, rage and love—asking us to understand emotions as action-oriented and actionable.

5. Luvvie Ajayi’s “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable”:

Writer, activist, and “professional troublemaker” Luvvie Ajayi (of Awesomely Luvvie) explains how she’s learned to push through discomfort and still to speak out, arguing that “silence serves no one.” She describes the work of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” underlining the importance of speaking even/especially when there is risk and consequence. In this way, emotional courage is not about leaving behind fear, but still acting when scared.

Together, these TED talks call us into self-inquiry alongside continued, committed action. As I close the 40-day practice, I commit to flexing my emotional muscles, to sitting with discomfort, and to speaking/writing up, especially when shaking. May these TED talks give fuel and inspiration for the continued work of developing emotional literacies for racial justice.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Snapshots of Support,” “Blogs I Love: Reading Suggestions for Women’s History Month,” and “What Is Justice?” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

“We’re All the Ages We’ve Ever Been”

As much as I value self-care, there are times when it flies out the window. I’m no longer the adult caring for my inner child, but I’m the toddler or teen full of emotion and pursuit of immediate pleasure.

This week, I’ve been really in touch with my 2-year-old self, who’s been demanding attention. When it’s running the show, I’m inclined to emotional meltdowns, sugar binges, irregular sleep, over-tired crying, and resistance to naps. I readily settle in front of the TV and need an adult to get my jacket and take me for a walk. When back from the walk, I find myself whining: “But I don’t want to take a bath …” even when baths are among my favorite things and absolutely calm me down.

There’s nothing like embodying my toddler self to remember that I have access to all my former ages and selves—and not only as memories but also as immediate actors and agents in my life.

Some years ago, when taking children’s literature courses, I remember hearing and repeating the line: “we’re all the ages we’ve ever been.” Versions of this quote have been attributed to Madeleine L’Engle and other authors, but I attribute it to my storytelling professor, who regularly stepped into characters of herself as a child, a young mother, an established researcher, and an elder storyteller. Through these characters, I could see such love for life and willingness to re-play past experiences. My professor performed the sort of deep revisiting of the past that I imagine my 2-year-old self is asking me to do when I’m in resistance mode.

Interestingly, in this week’s total toddler takeover, one of the few things I wanted to do was coloring, a form of art I’ve craved from a very young age. I also chose to color images of owls, symbolically associated with wisdom and aging. The more I layered colors, the more I could see the wisdom in honoring all my ages and in looking backward to look forward.

Colorful image of owls with hand-written mantras: "I am all the ages I've been. I honor the wisdom of past and future selves, loving the child me and the aging me. I love and approve of myself."

For now, I’ll hug myself close as I work on being a better parent to this 2-year-old who needs veggies and sleep. I can see (again) that there’s much to heal in my past if I am to make change in the present and future. I commit to this healing, as I commit to justice: work that involves deep revisiting of what’s old, what’s hidden, and what’s nevertheless demanding attention.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books,” “Playing Through the Pain,” and “Banana, Chocolate, and Peanut-Butter Mash: Changing My Relationship with Sugar and Rethinking Self-Care.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist

During the holidays, I visited family in Tennessee and Florida, where we encountered multiple spiders. They were doing what spiders do in houses: walking along baseboards, in and out of shadows, with seemingly little or no interest in human co-habitants.

From growing up in the Tennessee mountains, I’m familiar with spiders. I’ve studied which spiders’ venom is likely to impact humans. I’ve encountered black widows, watched for brown recluses, and investigated spider bites on my body. I’ve also realized that my fear of spiders—a fear that I’ve quieted over time—is not a rational fear of venom. Instead, it’s a fear of any and all spiders, simply because they are spiders. And I worry a lot about fearing something because it exists. Such fear literally kills people, as internalized fear of black men (fear of black and brown bodies, especially by white women) is well-documented. It’s essential to explore, spend time with, and really understand this fear.

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When I think of fear (and spiders), I think of this wisdom from poet Nikki Giovanni (who also grew up in the Tennessee mountains):

I killed a spider Not a murderous brown recluse Nor even a black widow And if the truth were told this Was only a small Sort of papery spider Who should have run When I picked up the book But she didn't And she scared me And I smashed her I don't think I'm allowed To kill something Because I am Frightened

Giovanni’s “Allowables” reminds me that when fear is in the driver’s seat, it can do real harm. Fear is linked with violence, with the limits of coming to see or care about another being, another person. Fear is linked with dehumanization, with injustice, with denying life. Literally, such fear undermines another’s right to exist.

Though fear has a role in play in our lives, that role needs to be considered and measured. For author Elizabeth Gilbert, fear belongs in the backseat. Though it can offer suggestions and give information, we must determine how to act with that information.

More and more, I realize that whenever I’m tuning out fear, it grows louder in its insistence to be heard. And the louder fear is, the greater its potential for taking over and short-circuiting mindful, committed action.

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It’s taken me years to shift my attitude toward spiders, but now when I see spiders in houses, my instinct is to observe them and, typically, leave them be. I’ve learned that their self-determined path is to disappear into nooks and crannies, and their presence won’t harm me. That’s why I was taken by surprise by my family’s reaction to spiders.

In one spider encounter (after some yelling and shoe-throwing), a family member challenged: “If you don’t move it, I’ll kill it.”

At that moment, I heard my fear speak loudly: “Beth, if you try to move it, it might bite you.”

I’ve learned from educator Margaret Wheatley that looking at what surprises and disturbs me is a good way to see my assumptions and beliefs. In this moment, I could see shame that my old fear of spiders was still driving (not backseat-riding). I could see how fear was preventing me from interacting with spiders, much less seeing myself as truly in relation with them. Even the language of “it” held the spider at a distance, making me question the depth of my relations with other humans and non-human animals.

Thanking fear for these lessons, I luckily found a glass and a holiday card to trap the spider and move it outdoors. After a few deep breaths—of feeling how fear was undercutting relations—I looked down to see that the card held a much-needed message:

2017-12-26 10.09.46

That line—“to every creature great and small”—is the sort of holiday greeting that communicates a desire for connectedness with all beings. It’s a sentiment offered to snow-people and birds, but what about to spiders? What about to humans deemed less-than-human? What about to those who are deemed expendable, whose right to exist is constantly called into question?

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As a framework or orientation to the world, veganism helps me recognize and relate differently with fears. Through striving to relate with “every creature great and small,” veganism helps me notice when I’m afraid of others and to question—and not continually perpetuate—those fears. Veganism, too, helps me notice when fear is driving instead of backseat-riding. This noticing arises through a commitment to ecofeminism: a commitment to counter exploitation, oppression, and injustice and to affirm social, racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice.

It’s not by chance that Nikki Giovanni, a Black woman born “during the age of segregation,”  wrote “Allowables.” Lived experiences facing dehumanization and white supremacy provide insights into the experience of being feared, killed, and written off. Of being dis-allowable. And such dis-allowing is why veganism must be intersectional—working not only against speciesism but also against racism, sexism, classism, -isms.

When I think of what’s most urgent in the world at this moment, I think of what’s allowed and dis-allowed. I think of who’s allowed and dis-allowed. And I think of the urgent need for a white woman to leverage courage toward combating fear. For, truly, white women’s fears have historically bolstered white supremacy, and so working with fears is essential to countering dehumanization and super-humanization (inferiority and superiority).

My hope is that by relating more humanely with spiders, we learn to relate more humanely with humans. May valuing spiders’ self-determined paths allow us to value all humans’ rights to existence and to self-determination.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other answers to “why I’m vegan,” including environmental justice, ecofeminism, and doing something small and sustained. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Rape Culture

It’s been a few weeks since the #metoo hashtag prompted discussion about the widespread and systemic nature of sexual violence. As I’ve shared stories and listened to others’, I’ve been struck by frequent questioning: “Does ______ really count as sexual harassment or assault?” And that question has led me to consider the many moments of sexual intimidation that aren’t harassment or assault per se, but constitute violence and are part of rape culture nonetheless.

Here are a few examples from my life as a professor interacting with undergraduate men:

  • A student waits until everyone has left the classroom to confront me about his grade, raising his voice and moving closer until he’s towering over me.
  • A pattern emerges in which at least seven students (all men) walk into my faculty office and shut the door (only for me to re-open it), making me aware of the tension that arises in my body from their assumed control of space and uninvited move toward intimacy.
  • A student enters an otherwise empty elevator and stands in front of me, blocking both the exit and the keypad for selecting floors. My body stiffens up so that I wait until he’s left the elevator before moving forward to the keypad and pressing the button for my office floor.
  • A student brings his friend (another man) to his writing conference late in the evening when the department is empty. This friend sits outside my office, essentially guarding the hallway.

Whether intentional or not, intimidation operates in moments like these because they play into larger understandings of agency, ownership, intimacy, and control of physical space. They obstruct efforts to maintain distance, to meet in public, to plan exit routes, and so on.

While none of these experiences constitute sexual harassment or assault, they show how presumed ownership of space communicates domination. They show how rape culture, which is based in domination, operates in classrooms, offices, elevators, hallways, and other spaces. They also show how no one is immune: even the professor who holds institutional power can be intimidated and over-powered.

rape-culture-pyramid
Rape culture is rooted sexism, heterosexism, and other interlocking systems of oppression, which we see reflected in attitudes, inequities, and everyday realities. Source: http://www.11thprincipleconsent.org/consent-propaganda/rape-culture-pyramid/.

I share these moments with the hope that we might better understand rape culture as a cultural phenomenon that is constructed and performed in everyday interactions. Moments like these aren’t ones I report to our Title IX coordinator, but they are ones that stack up the longer I’m in higher education. They are moments that come to mind when I think about how gender-based intimidation and invalidation—like other microaggressions—play out in many seemingly small yet consequential ways.

I share these moments, too, because they’ve become memories that sit alongside those of harassment, assault, and other sexual violence. When I think of my own stories and those shared by others, I see how moments like these are part of larger narratives of rape culture, or a culture that perpetuates deep injustice through sexism and heterosexism, including the objectification and exploitation of women’s and marginalized peoples’ bodies. Truly, such everyday moments make up the larger culture and have cumulative impact. They erode trust, provoke fear, and increase inequitable demands for emotional labor, among other matters.

I also share these moments because they reveal patterns—like the pattern I noticed of men shutting the office door. Just as there’s potential in looking for themes and outliers for everyday divination, there’s potential in identifying patterns of sexual intimidation and other violence. Identifying patterns allows us to better witness, name, and intervene into injustice. And the patterns supporting rape culture desperately need intervention.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence” or “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence

I didn’t learn to drive in drivers ed. In fact, I never drove the car that whole semester because the teacher was a creep.

When girls would drive, he’d start off complimenting perfume or jewelry or clothing. Then he’d lean into the driver to observe them better (the perfume or jewelry or clothing). From there, he’d put his hand on the girl’s leg, sometimes leaving it there and sometimes moving it higher along the thigh. All of this with two additional students in the backseat. All of this with students feeling powerless to do anything.

That semester he asked me multiple times when I’d like to drive, and I always made one excuse or another. In the meantime, I sat in the back of the car and watched. I never told another teacher because everyone at school already knew, and nothing would be done anyway.

My parents knew, and they knew I wasn’t learning to drive. That became the immediate concern, as it seemed to relate to my physical safety. To me, physical safety meant never getting in the driver’s seat next to that instructor. I’d take my chances on the road itself.

This is one of many, many stories that come to mind as I add “me too” in solidarity on friends’ FB posts. This is one of many, many stories of sexual harassment, intimidation, and violence that are so normative, they are simply everyday. This is one of many, many stories that bring to mind the costs and consequences of this violence—with the loss of drivers education a small piece of the stories I hold, stories I bear witness to.

At what point do we say ENOUGH?

I see posts online saying that the past 24 hours of “me too” responses have been triggering as hell. I see posts online saying that one person facing this violence is too many. I see posts online questioning the political efficacy of this outpouring of raising hands and storytelling.

As I sit with the emotions, memories, and physical pain that arise, I also feel deep gratitude for the storytelling, as it feels like a moment of building trust when trust is so corroded. It feels like a moment of affirming that “yes, this really did happen” and of countering the epistemic injustice that underlies women (and people facing prejudice) not being believed. It feels like an important moment for saying aloud—again, STRONGLY—that no one should face this violence and that we must stand TALL in the commitment to justice.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter” or “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!