I met Brooke Axtell in 2012 at a reading for an anthology we were both included in called “Dancing at the Shame Prom.” Her essay in the book, “What I Know of Silence,” explored her experience of child sex-trafficking by a male nanny and how she used poetry and music to both heal and help her connect with other survivors. In addition to writing, Axtell, a poet and activist, has spoken extensively about her experiences and how to improve the lives of those in similar situations to police departments, universities, and conferences such as the National Sexual Assault Conference.
Now, the 34-year-old Austin resident, who serves as director of communications for the nonprofit Allies Against Slavery, is poised to speak to the entire world, parlaying her advocacy right into the heart of American pop culture when she joins Katy Perry onstage at the Grammys tonight.
Before Perry sings “By the Grace of God,” Axtell will give a speech about her experience with domestic violence. In between rehearsals, Axtell told Salon about what to expect at the Grammys, casting aside victimhood and how you can help domestic violence survivors.
How did your involvement with Katy Perry and the Grammys come about? What will you be performing there?
I was introduced to Katy Perry by the Grammys’ Executive Producer, Ken Urlich. He is a true visionary. He heard about my work as an activist and speaker through SafePlace in Austin, an emergency shelter and anti-domestic violence organization, and wanted to bring us together for a collaboration. After an initial conversation with Ken and co-producer Terry Lickona [also the producer of Austin City Limits], they asked me to write a speech for the show. My message resonated with Katy and her passion to empower women. Our connection evolved from there.
Did you have any hesitation in accepting this opportunity?
No. I was immediately excited by the opportunity to bring the issue of domestic violence into the light. We know that 1 out of 4 women in the United States will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Our collaboration for the Grammys is a creative, intimate way to highlight this devastating trauma that impacts so many lives and show those who are currently in abusive relationships that we are standing with them.
Have you interacted with Katy Perry herself yet?
Yes. I had a chance to hear her sing in rehearsal today. Her performance was powerful. We also talked afterward about our passion for addressing the issue of domestic violence. I shared with her how grateful I am that she is using her voice to advocate for survivors.
You'll be talking about domestic violence; why is this topic important to you personally?
As a survivor and activist, I share my experience to encourage others to speak their own truth. One of the most painful parts of abuse is the sense of isolation. When I voice my truth, I invite others to do the same.
Your work involves big issues like sex trafficking and, in this case, domestic violence. Is it a challenge to condense your message into a shortened format?
Although domestic violence and trafficking need an in depth response, I feel my experience as a poet helps me to distill my message to its essence. In April, I will be speaking at the Slave Free City Summit hosted by Allies Against Slavery in Austin and will have the opportunity to dive deeper into these issues and how they overlap.
You told People you don't see yourself as a victim; was there a time that you did? How have you turned your experiences around to own the word survivor?
I was a victim of a crime when I was being trafficked as a child and subjected to domestic violence as an adult. I became a survivor when I moved beyond the trauma into the knowledge of my power and worth. Through the recovery process we move from being victims to survivors to creators of change.
My path as a writer, speaker and performing artist has been a significant part of claiming my experience and defining what it will mean to me. When we express our creativity, we have the power to decide how we will relate to our trauma and the story we will tell about our lives.
To that end, you're the founder of Survivor Healing and Empowerment (SHE). Can you tell me more about what SHE does and why connecting with other survivors is important to the healing process?
The purpose of SHE is to create a healing community and offer a sacred space for survivors to express their truth without fear. Self-expression can be revolutionary when it comes from those who have been marginalized or silenced by their experience. Most of the survivors I connect with have not only endured horrific abuse, but a tremendous degree of victim-blaming. Speaking out is a powerful form of non-violent resistance and this happens first within safe communities.
For someone who is currently experiencing domestic violence, what can they do to get help? What about someone who's friend or family member is experiencing domestic violence? What can they do?
I have a whole section of my website devoted to resources for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking that I would encourage others to explore. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help connect individuals, friends and family members to resources in their area. For those who want to be allies, I would encourage you to continue to become educated on the cycle of power and control that happens in an abusive relationship and reach out to your local shelter for information. They can also talk to their loved one about meeting with an advocate to develop a safety plan, so when the person is ready to leave everything is in place. The book Helping Her Get Free by Susan Brewster is an introductory guide for those who want to offer support.
What message do you want viewers to take away from your performance?
Abuse is not just an assault on our bodies. It is also a violent assault on our core identity. When we are abused, we are being told through both words and actions that we are worthless, powerless and unloved. I am devoted to taking a stand against these lies and affirming the truth of survivors’ dignity and worth. Together we can channel our voices, our energy and our gifts to bring an end to all forms of abuse, to show survivors the truth of who they are: deeply and unconditionally worthy of love and respect. That is the heart of what I want to convey at the Grammys. Ultimately, I hope our audience will be inspired to reach out for help and advocate for those they love.
For over a decade, you've been an activist around issues around domestic violence, abuse and trafficking, what changes have you seen?
The movement is slowly becoming more intersectional and integrating a vital analysis of how various forms of oppression make some populations more vulnerable to abuse, particularly on the basis of race and class. Women are disproportionately targeted by trafficking, rape and domestic violence, but I am also seeing more male survivors come forward. They are a crucial part of the movement.
What would you like to see happen both in individual communities and on a national scale?
On a national scale, I want to see Survivor Leaders at the forefront of this social transformation and valued for their expertise. One challenge in highlighting the personal experience of a survivor is that they can become reduced to a story, a story of trauma. Trauma is a form of knowledge, but survivors have far more to offer. Their perspectives and insights should be honored.
I also want to see grassroots efforts become more strategic and unified from city to city. The model of individual non-profits fighting for scarce resources must end. Ultimately, we have to tap into the passion of the people in our communities. That is what I hope to contribute through Allies Against Slavery. We are empowering our community to support survivors of human trafficking and create a Slave Free City.
Do you have anything else to add?
As an advocate, I’ve seen that many women are taught that they must choose between love and personal power. Part of healing is surrendering that script. When love and power are unified, we are most effective in creating equality, justice and healthy intimacy. This is the freedom I desire for all of us.