Sexual Assault Awareness Month una perspectiva Latin@: Introducing Katia Santiago-Taylor
Thursday, April 23rd, 2020
Since April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, we wanted to take this opportunity and highlight a courageous Latina making a difference in the lives of sexual assault survivors and the community. We introduce to you Katia Santiago-Taylor.
Katia Santiago-Taylor is the Boston Rape Crisis Center’s (BARCC’s) Advocacy and Legislative Affairs Manager. She advocates for systems-wide policy changes to support survivors and manages BARCC’s work on legislation that affects survivors. Katia has worked in the field of domestic and sexual violence since 1999. Before joining BARCC, she worked in various positions at the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA) and also as a victim witness advocate for both the Suffolk and Middlesex district attorneys’ offices. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Katia has a master’s degree from Northeastern University in criminal justice.
What brought you the work of supporting survivors and gender based violence?
When I first came to Massachusetts for college, I knew enough English to communicate, but I was not comfortable speaking it, and I certainly was not easily understood. Often, I felt alienated and misunderstood. I had to work really hard to be included and make my voice heard. Even with all of the struggles I had, I knew that I had to go to grad school if I wanted to make social change. When I graduated from grad school, I knew I wanted to help people, and given all the struggles I faced with language access, I knew I wanted to help people who didn’t speak English. I first started working at the District Attorney’s office as a victim-witness advocate in Lowell, so most of the victims I worked with were Spanish speakers. Then, I knew that I wanted to support survivors of domestic and sexual violence who spoke Spanish. I knew that when they came to see me or called me, not only was I able to speak to them in their native language, but I was also able to understand them culturally. Although it came to me out of pure luck, I fell in love with the field, and I have made it my personal and professional life. Over the years, I learned that people like me didn’t have a seat at the table. People like me were often left in the position of supporting victims, but were not decision makers. So I realized that to best support survivors, I needed to bring my authentic self to help develop programs and policies. I needed to have a seat at the table.
What do you currently do in your position to support survivors of sexual assault?
I am BARCC’s Advocacy and Legislative Affairs manager. BARCC’s primary goal is to support survivors, family, friends, significant others, and our communities on their path to healing. We do so by providing direct services, outreach and education, prevention trainings and workshops. As an agency, we are committed to many social justice issues that affect us as a community and the survivors we work with. We are not a policy maker organization, but we acknowledge that we have the capacity, the knowledge, and the experience to develop best practices and influence decisions to improve the services our communities access. Our legislative goals do not solely focus on sexual violence; they also focus on improving the lives of survivors and our communities. We’re grateful to be an organization that does direct support work, while also being able to focus on advocacy and policy work. When we think about what we want to accomplish legislatively, we want to make sure that the broad and complex issues our clients face are brought to the forefront and that when policies and best practices are developed, they include a sexual violence prevention lens. Policies and laws have a significant impact on our lives, and budgets determine how resources are allocated to programs and services.
My role is to educate and advocate for policy changes that will best support survivors of sexual violence. As one of the few Latinas spending significant time at the State House, I often find myself raising awareness of language access and the importance of cultural inclusivity when policies are developed.
How can we support loved ones who have been impacted by sexual assault?
Sexual violence is a traumatic experience, and there is no one response to it. Many survivors are isolated, feel shame, and blame themselves. One of the most important actions we can take with survivors is to listen to them and let them know we believe them and are there to support them. It is best to let survivors know that you are there for them and ask them how you can support them. Survivors can have different responses and needs, and it’s most supportive if we don’t decide what they need or what they should do. Ask people how they are feeling, how you can help, and what they need from you. Avoid questions like: “What happened?” Instead, you can ask, “How can I help you?” The goal is to support them—we don’t need to know what happened to them to be able to do so, we just need to take their guidance to be there for them when they need us. It is best if we let the survivor lead the conversation.
What advice do you give advocates working with Latin@ survivors of sexual assault?
The best advice I have for Latin@ advocates is: Know your boundaries and stay true to yourself. Do not let systems take away your authenticity. I often say, “Estoy cura de espantos,” loosely translated to “I have heard it all.” Doing this work, I have heard people say to me:
“You speak Spanish, you can translate”
“Never share any information about yourself, if they ask you any personal questions, bring back the conversation to them,”
“No physical contact whatsoever”
And so on…..
I don’t think I could help many Latin@ survivors listening to all of these comments. I have a strong accent, and I know that in order to best connect with Latin@ survivors I need to connect with them culturally. If they ask me where I am from, I will always say I am from Puerto Rico. If they ask me if I have children, I will share with them that I do. If a survivor asks me for a hug, I will never deny them one. This is how I connect with survivors; I bring who I am to the advocate-survivor relationship to build trust.
Many Latin@ survivors need to tell the entire story, but most of it will not be about an incident. It will be about what they need to share with you to let you know who they are as a person. Latin@ survivors need time to build a relationship with you before they trust you to tell you all the details you need. Many Latin@ survivors prioritize their family needs; they need their families to be taken care of before they can start addressing their personal needs. We are raised to be caregivers. We want our family to have safety, housing, food, benefits, and if we ever have time we will work with our emotions.
How do you practice well-being and self-care?
Taking time for myself is critical. On a typical day, I take my commute home to debrief, to listen to audiobooks, music, talk to friends that I haven’t talked to in a long time. I value that time as my “me” time that I get to choose what I want to do with it. Self-care is something that I try to incorporate daily. I need to take care of myself in order to be able to take care of others—because if I don’t feel good, I can’t help others. Over the years, I have also learned that I don’t need to listen to all the news, media, or know all the details. I have learned that I need to ask for help when needed. It is a sign of strength. It is a sign that I recognize that I need my family, my community, my village, my people to do what I do!