A Joyful Gala, An Important Cause

On May 17, I had the opportunity to work and attend Joyful Heart’s 4th Annual Gala at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. As Joyful Heart’s Advocacy & Communications Associate, I was part of a team that informed attendees of one of Joyful Heart’s biggest advocacy efforts–ending the rape kit backlog–and helped them take action to do so. The night epitomized what’s so incredible about Joyful Heart’s supporters and why this work is so important.

As most events do, ours had a theme, How Will You Join? (The Joyful Revolution). In 2009, at Joyful Heart’s second Gala, the Joyful Revolution was born: a movement of our collective vision for a community that collaboratively ends the cycle of violence and abuse by turning toward the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. At last year’s Gala, the Revolution Continued as we honored the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which changed the way violent crimes against women are prosecuted and prevented.

At this year’s Gala, we asked the question How Will You Join? And it was answered in amazing ways throughout the night.

Letters urging leadership on rape kit reform

We started off with a letter writing campaign to members of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Each letter asked for their leadership to work to end the rape kit backlog. By the end of the evening, over 400 letters were signed—almost one for each guest in attendance. They’ll arrive by mail this week to the offices of Vice President Biden, Attorney General Holder, the Chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees—Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Lamar Smith, respectively—and dozens of individual representatives with our message that we support comprehensive, compassionate and victim-centered rape kit reform from the federal government.

The literal centerpiece of much of the evening in the area where this letter writing campaign took place was a huge installation—300 rape kits shaped like a heart. It represented the backlog of untested rape kits and our hope and commitment that one day, it won’t be there.

The 9-foot tall heart-shaped structure that was created out of 300 (empty and unused) rape kits

It was quite large, but it was the enormity of its message that was most striking. Seeing 300 kits before them, guests grappled with the enormity of the backlog–experts estimate hundreds of thousands are in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country.

As we moved to the next part of the evening, guests were drawn to the stage and dining area by the cacophony of an 8-member drum troop. Each guest had a musical shaker—another way to make noise and join in that night. Eventually we all settled down and news anchor Brian Williams, a devoted friend of Joyful Heart’s founder and president Mariska Hargitay started the evening’s program, a large portion of which was devoted to celebrating the evening’s revolutionary honoree, Dr. Neal Baer.

Dr. Baer is the prolific and visionary executive producer of Law & Order: SVU of 11 years, friend of Mariska for even longer and a founding board member of Joyful Heart. We honored his long career with SVU, his unmatched ability to tell the stories of survivors with compassion and hope and, of course, the result of this work that has shed light into the darkness that surrounds sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. As Mariska noted in her introduction of Dr. Baer:

When SVU started airing, survivors from across the country began writing to me, disclosing their stories of rape, assault, and abuse. In Detective Olivia Benson they heard an advocate—literally a person calling out on their behalf. And yes, Olivia’s heart is mine, but her words were Neal’s. So many survivors’ journeys of healing have their beginning with you sitting at your desk, writing.

Mariska Hargitay and Dr. Neal Baer at the 2011 Gala

At last year’s Gala, Neal listened as a woman named Helena told her story about her rape kit that had been stuck in Los Angeles’s backlog for over a decade. She had lived in fear that her rapist was still on the streets, able to find her using the driver’s license he had taken during her assault. When her kit was eventually tested, the evidence linked to a serial rapist.

As she told her story, Dr. Baer took notes on his dinner napkin. These notes would become the storyline to SVU Season 12, Episode 3, “Behave” based on Helena’s story, which guest starred Jennifer Love Hewitt and aired September 28, 2010 in over 15 million homes, launching a national dialogue on the backlog of untested rape kits.

Though very few of us are TV producers, it was clear that there are countless ways people can–and have–joined the revolution. As part of the program, person after person, 35 in total, got on stage to share the ways they turned toward the issues of violence and abuse, shed light into the darkness surrounding them, survived themselves or helped someone else survive.

“I talked to my sons about respect.”
“I reported my neighbor to the police after hearing him beat his wife and kids.”
“I asked a co-worker if she felt safe in her home. And then I asked her again.”
“I broke the cycle of abuse in my family.”
“I reported my rape.”
“I had the crazy idea to start a foundation.”

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