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Rape survivors, allies gather for day of empowerment

Lisa Forte and daughter Brianna McCombs were among the more than 100 people who attended Raise Your Voice.Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Lisa Forte of Quincy sat next to her 16-year-old daughter Saturday morning and wept.

When she was younger, Forte had been raped twice, she said. Though she works at an OB/GYN office and often sees victims of rape and sexual abuse, she never really spoke about it deeply with her daughter, Brianna McCombs.

“You know, how do you tell your daughter something like that?” she said.

But as the two sat together at Raise Your Voice, a day of workshops to help survivors of sexual violence and prevent future assaults, organized by Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Forte said she realized that she wanted to tell her daughter what she went through.


“She hasn’t been subject to it; she hasn’t had to deal with it,” Forte said after the workshop. “I wanted her to learn how to say no, and that it’s something that’s out there.”

Lisa Moris (left) and Veronica Rivera read T-shirts from the Clothesline Project, a vehicle for women affected by violence to express their emotions by decorating a shirt.Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

More than 100 people, predominantly women and girls, gathered at Northeastern University’s Egan Research Center to attend one of four workshops about self-defense, dealing with rape as teachers and nonprofit personnel, being survivors of sexual violence, and saying no.

Pressley said she began thinking about holding a day of workshops during the presidential election cycle, when Representative Todd Akin of Missouri sparked outrage with his comments about what he called “legitimate rape,” which he said rarely leads to pregnancy.

Then, in the fall, there were a number of reported rapes around Boston.

“And then, everyone’s attention dissipates,” Pressley said. “And this always happens. . . . People sort of read it, and they shake their heads, and then they continue living their lives.”

Last year, Boston had 273 reported rapes and attempted rapes, up slightly from 267 reported in 2011, according to Boston police statistics. Area B, which covers Roxbury and Mattapan, had 92 reports, the highest in the city. But because sexual assaults often go unreported, the actual number of attacks is likely higher.


Pressley, who is a survivor of sexual abuse and rape, said she wanted to break generational cycles.

“I’m a survivor, and my mom’s a survivor,” Pressley said. “I was afraid to even conceive of having my own child one day, because I was fearful I wouldn’t be able to protect her.”

Ebony White, group housing program director of the Centerboard community organization in Lynn, brought staff members and residents who have been affected by rape to the survivors’ workshop, run by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

Boston police officers ran a sample of the department’s Personal Safety and Rape Aggression Defense seminar. Casa Myrna, a domestic violence prevention organization in Boston, held a workshop teaching counselors, nonprofit employees, and other service providers how to spot and help victims of domestic violence.

Victims of sexual violence can be hard to pinpoint, White said. Some talk about their experience, some retreat inward, and others return to abusive relationships again and again.

White’s group heard male and female survivors speak, then discussed what they can do to recover.

Boston police officers ran a sample of the department’s rape defense seminar. And Casa Myrna, a domestic violence prevention organization in Boston, held a workshop teaching counselors and others how to spot and help victims of domestic violence.

“It gave some of the girls we brought here today some hope,” White said.

Denean Johnson of Jamaica Plain brought two of her three daughters, 11-year-old Arianna Coakley and 13-year-old Asja Coakley, to a mother-daughter workshop about self-defense and saying no to different societal pressures run by Girls’ Lifetime Empowerment and Awareness Program, also known as Girls’ LEAP.


T-shirts from the Clothesline Project.Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

As her mother grabbed her wrist, Arianna demonstrated how she learned to escape: step toward the attacker and “push down with all your force.”

“You need to know how to defend yourself,” said Johnson, who heard about the event on the radio.

Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson said men should change their attitudes toward sexual violence and consent. Conversations should happen in traditionally male spaces, Jackson said — he suggested between plays during the Patriots AFC championship game Sunday.

“We as men have to take a leadership role,” he said. “We can’t stand idly by and allow women to do all that they’re doing, and not answer our call.”

Jackson, who was adopted as a baby, said he discovered in college that his birth mother became pregnant with him after being raped at 13. Inspired by Pressley sharing her experience with rape, Jackson said he has recently started to talk about his birth mother in public for the first time since he was in college.

“People don’t understand how important and how contagious their one voice is,” Jackson said.

Forte said she came away feeling stronger for herself and her daughter.

“It was inspiring, with the other people in the room, hearing other people’s stories,” Forte said. “I knew I wasn’t alone, and she wasn’t alone.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com.