The Rhode Island Silent Witness Program
for use on
College and University
Nancy Rafi, President,
Silent Witnesses of Rhode Island
HOW TO GET STARTED
ACTUAL SPOKEN STORY
Thank you for your interest in presenting the Silent Witness Exhibit on your local college or university campus.
It has been my experience that most college-aged students are ready and eager to hear the stories that our Witnesses have to tell. We need only make the commitment to be their voices now that they can no longer speak for themselves.
I encourage you to work with whatever resources that present themselves to you. I have worked with the Social Work department, the Psychology department, the Art department, and the Women's Studies departments at various colleges and universities here in Rhode Island, and have found them to be enthusiastic to presenting the Witnesses in whatever fashion we have suggested. That can sometimes be just putting them up for display in a hallway or dorm, presenting them in a formal setting such as a classroom, or sometimes as a special project that has been collaborated on by interns and students. I've found that the opportunity to show the Witnesses in an outdoor setting, sometimes outside a hall or in the grassy areas, has been very effective. It seems to "personalize" them at a level that is moving and memorable.
Don't underestimate the power of this display. You'll find that when you present this exhibit, you will be approached afterwards by students for several things: more information about the project and how they can get involved in it, more information about domestic violence and information about how they can volunteer their time and resources, and more often than not, you will be offered a unique opportunity to help "process" a lot of personal information that will be offered to you. It's for these reasons that you MUST have printed information about domestic violence prevention available with the exhibit. I have NEVER done this exhibit without having at least one person come up to me afterwards and disclose some type of personal involvement with domestic violence. It could be that he/she has had a relationship that has involved some type of abuse, or perhaps he/she might know of someone in a relationship presently who needs some help.
I can't stress enough how important it is, if you choose to do this program or something else like it, that you have at your disposal a team of professionals who will be ready to listen and advise anyone who needs information afterwards. It would be a discredit to this project if you present it, and then have no avenue for students to process their issues in a safe and healthy environment. The Silent Witness project is all about hope and healing in our communities, and if we are to reach out to others, not only to inform them, but also to help them move forward in their own healing, we owe it to them to have the resources needed to do that.
That being said, I'd like to give you a little background of how I came up with the college/university program and it's evolution.
The Rhode Island Silent Witness project started in August of 1997, and we joined the other 49 states on October 18, 1997 in Washington DC for the first national "March to End the Silence". If you do the math, you can see that we had only 8 weeks to have our entire project completed. The original 8 women involved needed to do fundraising to get us to DC, get materials donated to have the Witnesses made, research the domestic violence deaths in our state and choose a year to represent all DV murders, contact family members, write the stories for the shields, have the shields made, make the Witnesses, make the "body bags" to transport the Witnesses safely, and coordinate getting everyone to Washington. I'm proud to say that each woman involved with the RI project was willing to take on a part of the work, and together, we defined what collaboration is all about! In the end, 23 women from Rhode Island drove to Washington for the national march, and all the monies were donated by friends, family, businesses and college students to pay for our entire endeavor! As you can see, having a supportive community can make all the difference. If you haven't been able to find the resources to help you out, don't despair. It sometimes comes in the most unlikely of places, but it WILL happen.
When we returned on October 21st from the march in Washington, we were on to our next task. We had been asked previously by the Women's Studies group on the campus of the University of Rhode Island in North Kingstown, RI to present the Witnesses with their "Take Back the Night" march. (Perhaps I should mention here that before our project was completed, we sent out a press release to all college and university campuses that the Silent Witness project was available for presentation to anyone who would like to make use of it. We received responses immediately!) Working with the Take Back the Night march has been a very natural pairing for us, (the women march on campus to bring to light the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault on campus), and we have been involved with this march on several campuses each year. I can't stress enough how important it can be to "piggy back" this project with others already in existence. It takes the time and labor out of redefining the wheel, and can be a very natural segue with many of the Women's Studies programs already in existence. It's all about networking!
It turned out that the date of the first "presentation" of the Witnesses in Rhode Island was October 22nd, the day following our arrival home from DC. To say that we were all exhausted, emotionally and physically, would be an understatement. But we were determined to have the Witnesses seen anywhere and everywhere we could, so we weren't going to let an opportunity pass us by.
I worked a full day that day and left my job at 5PM to get to the campus for 6PM and set up. Then I met up with another Silent Witness colleague at the campus and together we set the Witnesses up in an open grassy space between several buildings, in front of a platform with a microphone and several spotlights. Just taking the Witnesses from the car to the field brought a lot of attention. We carry the Witnesses in blue fleece "body bags", and since they range in size from 5'6" to 6"2", it can be quite a sight. Immediately, students surrounded us wanting to help out, curious to see what they looked like. The only stipulation to helping us with the Witnesses was that they could NOT remove them from their bags. I decided I needed to do that after they were already set up, so that they'd be more impactful. It turned out to be the right decision, because as I went down the row of Witnesses removing their coverings, I could hear the intake of breaths. Students immediately stood closely to them, reading their stories on their golden shields, and I could actually see the goosebumps rising on forearms as they progressed down the line of Witnesses. You may choose to do this in another manner, but I can tell you that I'll never forget their responses. It was then that I truly realized the impact that this medium has on an audience.
I let the Witnesses stay in the field for about a half-hour before the start of the program. This seems to give people a chance to read the stories and talk about them amongst themselves. I think it helps to set the stage for the upcoming presentation. I also think that having the chance to get so close to them helps to personalize them early on - students seem less apprehensive when the presentation starts if they've already had the opportunity to "mingle" with them for a few minutes ahead of time.
When the introductions for the program started, it was already dark in the field. I'll ask you at this point to try to visualize the scene. You're in a large open grassy space, sitting on the ground with about 150 other students, it's quite dark outside, and there are two spotlights illuminating six red life-sized silhouettes in a semi-circle. This is all you can see. And it's so quiet, you can literally hear a pin drop. Quite an unforgettable scene. You could hear the emotions in the air.
Everyone was welcomed to the presentation, told about the upcoming march afterwards, and I was then introduced by the Director of the Women's Studies program. As I took the stage, I realized that when I spoke I was not going to be seen by the crowd since it was so dark, and also the fact that I'm quite short (5'2"). It's also true that up to this point, I really didn't know exactly what I was going to say. I had a rough outline about wanting to talk about how the project started and about the march we had just come from, but I wasn't really sure where I was going to go from there.
I'll relay a little information here about what I believe to be divine intervention. When I was driving over to the campus that night, with the Witnesses laying down in the trunk and backseat of my car, I could actually feel the presence of these women whose murders I had researched, whose pictures I had seen, and whose stories I now had the responsibility of telling.
Saying I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. Just who was I to be taking on this task, and what could I possibly say that would do justice to these women whose lives I had never known until now? And how could I change these college students' perceptions about domestic violence and perhaps save someone's life? It felt like a weighty undertaking, and one I was worried that I would diminish, since I had never done any public speaking before.
And then it came to me. As I stood on that platform, with my palms becoming sweaty and a knot growing in my stomach, I realized that this would be easier than I thought. I would let the women tell their own stories;
I would merely be their voices. I remember standing there at that moment and whispering out loud to the women whose silhouettes I had carried in my car. I asked them to help me tell their stories with eloquence, to tell them with compassion and allow me to use their deaths as an opportunity to reach out to others and help change someone else's life. All of a sudden I felt a calm descend upon me. I swear that I felt their reassurance that we could, and would, do this presentation
together. And it's with that conviction that I started to tell their stories.
As everyone was seated in the dark field that night, I started to tell these women's stories in the first person. I said their stories by starting with "My name
IS." ...as though they were still alive and had merely asked me to stand in for them. And as I finished each one, I ended with "My name
WAS..Remember my name." I wanted this audience to remember that these were real people, and real stories they were hearing. Their stories came out of me with a passion and conviction that I had never know I could portray, and I truly believe that it was with their help that I was able to make an impact on that crowd of students that night. The five women who are Rhode Island's Silent Witnesses reminded everyone that they had once been mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and a part of the communities that these students now lived in, and then told about the moments of their deaths. I could actually feel the ripple of emotion flowing through the crowd as these women's lives and deaths came into focus. As I finished up the presentation telling the story of the Unknown Woman, I felt a sense of pride in having faced my fear of public speaking, and realized that by telling these stories, I had started on a new phase of healing myself. You see, I too was a victim of domestic violence, but my story ended quite differently than these women who stood here before me. After a period of time I was able to leave and to start over, without living in the constant fear that I knew they had experienced. And I think that's the reason why I feel such passion about this project.
I have become the voices of the women who didn't make it out alive. Often in my speaks I'll share the fact that I'm a survivor myself, if I feel that it will help with the impact of the Witnesses. I remind people that I wear a purple heart of my own, that I earned it in my own war, and that my home was the battlefield. I remind people that I carry the responsibility, as a survivor of domestic violence myself, to tell their stories and to make a difference, no matter how small, to help save one other woman's life. That is the power of this exhibit.
I have found that by being involved with the Silent Witness project on campuses, although I may feel like a small person in a big world, I have the opportunity to make a big impact with this exhibit. Never take this lightly. Remember that Ghandi said, "Never underestimate the power of one." You can honestly make changes happen, one person at a time, with the Silent Witnesses. I have seen and felt it firsthand.
As I left the stage that night, I walked out into the field hoping to hear some of the conversation the presentation might have provoked.
I didn't expect to see what happened next.
As those students sat in that quiet field, I watched them wipe away tears from their cheeks and sit in stunned silence in the presence of these women's deaths. Watching young adults open their minds and emotions to women they never had the opportunity to know made a big impact on me. I realized I had been more effective than I had dared to hope.
I hope you choose to go forward and present the Silent Witness project on your own local college and university campuses. In the process, I'm sure you'll realize as I have, that part of helping to heal others, helps you to heal yourself too. Silent Witness has that power.
Here is the actual program for your review and edits. As we have gone along over the past two years, we have tailored it and added and subtracted parts depending up on the space, time and appropriateness. Please feel free to change and customize this as you see fit. Only you will know what your audience needs to hear, and the most effective way to present it.
I am always available to help with any roadblocks you may encounter and I welcome your input on both your failures and your successes. You can reach me through e-mail at
firstname.lastname@example.org, by writing to me at: Silent Witness Collaborative of Rhode Island, 22 Calvert Street, Newport, RI 02840, or by phoning me at (401) 847-2798. I am always available.
I wish you good luck in your endeavors and applaud you for your determination to move forward to help educate and heal our communities, one person at a time. It is a journey you will never regret.
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HOW TO GET STARTED
It's usually a good idea to meet with the head of the department that is willing to sponsor your event on campus. This will give you the opportunity not only to make a personal contact at the college/university, but you'll also be able to meet with others in the department and check out the facility where you'll be presenting your exhibit. The area where the Witnesses will be displayed will have a lot to do with how you choose to present them. If you are going to be speaking to a class of say, 30 students, you will probably be better off setting them down on the floor closer to them so that they will ALL have a chance to interact with them. But if you are going to be speaking in front of an entire department, or perhaps at a rally, it is usually best to have them in a more "formal" setting, close together, and closer to a platform where you can stand behind or above them. Obviously as you try out each of these methods, you'll find out what works best for you.
I've found a very effective way of presenting the Witnesses if you are going to be with a smaller group, whether inside or outside.
Ask for participation! You'll be surprised how many students will approach you to help out, with everything from transporting them from your car and setting them up, to handing out printed information, to introducing you to others in their class. But one of the most effective things I've ever done with students "hands on"
has been asking them to tell the stories themselves. This takes a little more time, granted, but it can be tremendously effective. When students hear the stories from other students, with different voices, and different emotions, it can be a stirring presentation.
It kind of goes like this:
- Ask for one student to represent each of the Witnesses whose story you are going to tell in the first person. You will need to have each story
VERY CLEARLY typed out on a piece of paper for them to read from. Use big print, with lots of white space, so that they don't have to worry about losing their place - take away as much of the fear factor as you can.
- Now ask the students to pick their own Witness - it's interesting to see who they "connect" to and we sometimes have dialogue about this as we go along.
- Once they have chosen their Witness,
I pass out the stories they are to read. You will have to do a good amount of research on each Witness, from talking to the families, reading newspaper articles, and talking to the Attorney General's or lawyer's offices to be able to tell the stories well. You'll want to personalize these stories as much as possible, but it's also important to remember that you need to keep it short enough so that you don't loose anyone's attention. Remember to tell a little bit about the Witness's life too, not just about her death. Make her as real as you can. Mention if you can what town she lived in and what types of activities she was involved in when she was alive. These are things that people can connect to.
- After the students have their assigned Witness and have read over the stories once or twice to themselves, do a
"dry run" just so that everyone knows what to expect. I understand that sometimes this isn't possible because you can't meet in an area where you will have enough privacy to do this with a crowd present, but if you do I would stress that you take the time to do it. Take it from me, public speaking is difficult enough, especially when it's about such an emotional topic. You owe it to these students to give them a chance to practice.
- If someone decides they can't go through with it at this point,
let them bow out gracefully. Don't forget to thank them for trying, and try to involve
them in some other way. Remember, this is not for everyone.
- Now, pass out a candle to each person who will read a story. You can choose the color of the candle. We have used red, white and sometimes black - I think it depends upon the impact you want to make.
- Ask each student to go and stand
BEHIND their Witness and wait to have their candles lit. Just a reminder - if you're outside and it's windy, make sure that you have a cup around the candle. Nothing's worse than getting hot wax all over your hand as you wait to tell your story!
- Now is the time that you will
start your presentation to the audience. Talk about the Silent Witness project, how it started out in Minnesota, how your state became involved, and what you have done in your own state. Tailor this in whatever way you see fit. Then tell the audience that you would like them to know the stories of the women who stand before them.
- It's at this time that you will
go over and light the candle of the first student standing
BEHIND her Witness. It's kind of important for her to be behind the Witness so that the audience doesn't see her until she's ready to read the story. This way they will associate that student with that Witness.
- Before she starts to tell her first story,
she will lean over and light the candle of the next student behind her Witness, and so on down the line until all the candles are lit. The trick here is to not let the audience seeing you do this. It's hard, but with practice it becomes easier.
- Now, the first student will take one step to the RIGHT of the Witness, and one step
FORWARD, so that she is standing directly to the right of the Witness. Have her hold her candle in front of her face so that it is illuminated. (But make sure it's far enough away so that she doesn't blow it out while she's speaking!) This is to represent life and spirit.
- She will then go on to read the story of the Witness she has chosen, beginning with
"MY NAME IS.." and will end it with MY NAME WAS... (pause) REMEMBER MY
- At this point, she will blow out her
candle, pause for a moment, and take one step back, and then one step to the left, so that she is standing
directly behind her Witness and can no longer be seen.
- Let a few seconds pass
before you start with the next story.
- Then have your next student do the EXACT same thing, all along the row of your Witnesses.
When the last story has been read, and the last candle blown out, and the last student is standing behind her Witness, it's effective to end your presentation with something like this:
"If the Silent Witnesses could speak to you now, I think they might say.We are the women of (state). who have died as a result of domestic violence. We can no longer speak out against violence against women. We need YOUR voices, YOUR strength, and YOUR commitment to go forward and tell our stories. Cry for us, grieve for us, but do not let that sadness turn into indifference. Let your anger turn into action. Feel the pain of lives lost too early, but do not let us have died in vain. Move forward, lift your voices, cry out against violence against your sisters. It is the only way things will ever change. It is too late for me, but let my death be a lesson to others. Use it as an example to spur others to action. And please, remember our names."
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You may also choose to do a "healing" part of the presentation. You'll know what you need by talking to the department who is sponsoring your event.
For our healing presentation, we usually do something like this:
- After we've done the stories, and given the audience a few moments to catch their collective breaths, the person leading the speak goes to the side of the Witnesses where we have a table set up.
- You'll need to have a clear glass bowl (you may choose to use one with color, but we like to use clear).
- Under the table you should have a jug of spring water, a canister of salt, and smooth rocks that bear the names of each of your Witnesses. (You can usually write these on the rocks with a magic marker, but make sure you use something that won't disappear or smudge if it gets wet.)
With someone else holding the microphone, we present this healing ritual to the audience:
- Hold the jug of spring water in front of you and say something like "Just like being
baptised, this spring water represents the purity of life."
- Now, pour the water into the bowl, about halfway full. Take your time - you don't need to rush this part.
- Take the salt and start to pour it into the water and say "This salt represents the tears of all the families, friends, and loved ones of these Witnesses. It is our intent that no one else ever feel the sadness they have had to bear."
- Pause for a few seconds.
- Now take the stones, one at a time, and place them in the salted water. (It's important that you have enough stones for everyone in the audience, and you can write the names of your Witnesses on several rocks, but you don't have to put them all in at the same time.)
As you place the stones in the bowl, you can say "These pebbles represent the lives of each of these Witnesses. We place them in the salted water to remind them they will never be forgotten. And just like a pebble tossed into a pond, our actions can ripple out into our communities. Never doubt that you can make a difference in someone's life. By being here today, and hearing these women's stories, you are being presented the opportunity to make a change. Reach out and tell their stories, remember their names, do not let them have died in vain. We invite you now to come forward and take a stone from the water and bring it back with you. Place it upon your desk, on your kitchen table, on your dashboard. Every time someone asks you what this stone represents, tell someone the story.
The power is in the telling. By doing this, you will be honoring and remembering the women whose stories you have heard tonight."
- Now is a good time to thank everyone
VERY BRIEFLY and step back from the bowl.
- You may wish to tell your Witnesses storytellers (ahead of time) to come forward at this point and take a stone - this gets the crowd involved easier and may be less intimidating for them. Just make sure that as the stones are taken, you place more in so there will be enough.
**If you've had the opportunity to meet with students who will be involved with this program ahead of time, you may wish to have them actually make the stones themselves. Get them as involved as possible, but make sure you also have supplies for backup just in case they didn't have time to get their "project" completed.
This has been just a rough outline of the program that we present on campuses. As you do more of them, you'll find out what you'll need to change. Believe me - the students will let you know. Just be willing to listen.
Remember what a wonderful opportunity this is to reach out to these young minds. They are ready to hear this project, and you will be amazed at how many activists will come forward and get involved with this program. In Rhode Island, we have 3 college students who became involved in the Silent Witness project after hearing it on their campuses, and they have been
INCREDIBLY effective presenting this to their peers.
Again, I wish you good luck with your program, and urge you to continue your work on campus talking about domestic violence issues.
And as always, let us always remember their names.
AVAILABLE RESOURCES FOR YOUR PROGRAM
- You can go out on the Internet and read about the National Silent Witness initiative at
www.silentwitness.net. There will be a listing of all statewide coordinators for each Silent Witness project in your state, along with information on products you can buy and sell at your functions (such as tee shirts and pins).
- Get books from your library and display on a table nearby. Some of my suggestions for are:
"A Woman Like You" by Vera Anderson
"This River of Courage" by Pam McAllister
"How, Then, Shall We Live?" by Wayne Muller
"Living With the Enemy" by Donna Ferrato
"The Women's Source Book" by Ilene Rosoff
"The Domestic Violence Sourcebook" by Dawn Bradley Berry
- Contact your state's
Coalition Against Domestic Violence - they may be able to
assist you with this project and give you more specific
information about domestic violence statistics in your state.
Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to!
IDEAS FOR YOUR PROJECT
- Make purple ribbons to
give to each person who attends your presentation. These
represent domestic violence awareness. Here in RI we have made
them with red pieces of paper glued on them with the printed
name, age and date of death of a Silent Witness. We pin these on
cards that tell a short story about that woman's life. This is
good to use if you are unable to the "closing" ceremony.
- Get pamphlets from your
local shelter. The more information you have to give out the
- Place purple ribbons on
a small table in the foyer of the room you'll be presenting
in. Put out black magic markers and ask people to write the name
of someone they wish to remember who might be involved with
domestic violence. At the end of your program, ask people to
come forward and pin them to a "remembering tree".
- Invite the heads of
several departments from your college/university or local high
school to attend. This way they will have the opportunity to
understand the issues a little better, and learn the warning
signs, in case someone in their class chooses to "disclose"
to them. It's always good to stir up conversation!
- Put together a funding
drive for a local shelter or women's center. They would be
more than appreciative of the added support! You can even put
out a basket for donations after your presentation if you feel
comfortable doing that.
- Ask someone from your
local Rape Crisis Center to speak in partnership with your
presentation. This can be a great collaboration and a chance to
talk about date rape and appropriate behavior in social settings
which are important to this age group.
- Make a donation to the
National Silent Witness Initiative. The goal is to reach 0
domestic violence deaths by the year 2010.
of Rhode Island's Actual Spoken Story:
My name IS Beth Crisp. I am only 22 years old on September 7th of
1992 and I am living in my own apartment in North Providence, since
I just moved out of my parent's house in Centredale. I was engaged
to Roger Simpson, but because of his violent nature, I called off my
engagement and am continuing on with my life. I love my job at
Accessories Associates in Centredale which I've been at for about
a year and a half. I really feel like my life is moving forward.
I recently met a young Navy man, Michael Harris at a friend's
wedding and we've just begun dating. He sent flowers to my office
on Friday afternoon and my officemates said I "lit up like a
Christmas tree". It's the first time I've ever gotten flowers
from a guy. I'm looking forward to seeing Michael this weekend.
Early Saturday morning I hear a knock at the back door of my
apartment. Still groggy from sleep, I answer the door and am shot 5
times at close range by my ex-fiance, Roger.
As I lay dying on my kitchen floor, he walked over my body and into
the next room and shot and killed my new boyfriend Michael.
My name WAS Beth Crisp.
Remember my name.