In January, we heard from Kentucky State Senator Denise Harper Angel and survivor advocate Michelle Kuiper, who offered further insight into legislative efforts to end the backlog in Kentucky. This month, Michelle is back to share her journey to advocacy and provide useful tips for survivors who want to take action. Michelle is a powerful advocate in Kentucky and nationwide, and she refers to what happened to her as her truth.
Becoming an advocate is a journey because it is not about checking off boxes; it’s about having control over your truth and using it in a way that works for you to create the change you want to see. For almost 20 years, I didn’t talk about my truth. It was not until my offender was sentenced to 33 years in prison that I felt safe enough to publicly come forward and start speaking out for survivors. The first time I volunteered was for the Kentucky activities of the White House initiative It’s On Us and then the University of Louisville’s Prevent Educate Advocate on Campus and Community (PEACC) program. PEACC Director Sally Evans was so wonderful. She encouraged me to volunteer and speak at campus events. I then met Eileen Recktenwald, Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (KASAP) and a 30-year advocate. Eileen was nurturing and empowered me to believe in myself, learn about boundaries, and how no one else but me is in control of my truth. She gave me the tools to become the advocate I am today and has never made me feel like a victim. I am only where I am now due to the support she and so many others have given me.
After gaining confidence and support through my volunteering work, I started writing to legislators. Before getting involved in this, I knew nothing about legislation or the legislative process, but I did have my truth. I have always written in journals, so during my quiet breaks while working as a nanny, I decided to write down my truth. I had heard about how contacting your own elected officials is the place to start, so that’s what I did. I used Google to find out who my legislators were and to find their contact information. I was very nervous my first time sending a letter to my legislator, Kentucky State Senator Julie Raque Adams. I was sharing something so intimate with somebody else, so I was worried about how legislators would perceive my letter, especially knowing how many people still engage in survivor-shaming.
I was excited when Senator Raque Adams' assistant contacted me to arrange a call with the senator. She was amazing. She wanted to help me in any way she could. From there, I kept going. I found a map online with all the state legislators in Kentucky, and I printed it, took a highlighter, and check marked every single legislator that I had written to and that had replied because many did. I was feeling more and more confident when I saw that I was heard and that my truth could help somebody else. I got in touch with Kentucky State Senator Denise Harper Angel, and, as you can see from our interview, we’ve been working together on larger comprehensive reforms in Kentucky ever since.
In 2016, then-Auditor Adam Edelen asked me to speak at a press conference he was holding about Resolution 20. He was passionate about implementing the resolution, which required his office to audit the untested sexual assault kits in the state. At first, I didn’t understand the terms “backlog,” “untested,” and “unsubmitted,” but I learned them as I advocated for reform. I then started speaking at more events. I went to counties around Kentucky for stakeholder meetings to talk about why testing all sexual assault kits is important to me. Through my growing network, I was introduced to more advocates, such as Jayann Sepich from DNASaves.org, who helped pass legislation requiring the collection of DNA upon arrest for felony crimes in New Mexico and 32 other states. She is an amazing, courageous advocate, and I was proud to partner with her to advocate for similar legislation here in Kentucky.
For survivors who would like to become involved, remember that there are so many ways to become an advocate. Try to find what types of activities work for you. For me, it was writing, but for others, it may be making calls, mentoring, or going to community meetings. Aside from becoming involved with legislation and the legislative process, you can also volunteer in many places, such as rape crisis centers and sexual assault awareness programs at schools and colleges. As I mentioned, this is how I got started, and I still volunteer with the University of Louisville program.
Whatever you try, remember that to be an advocate, it takes a lot of courage, support, respect, empathy, and gratitude. Advocating can also involve research, work, preparation, and professionalism, so we must remember self-care. We survivors own our truths and just because we told our truth yesterday doesn't mean that we owe it to anyone to tell our truth today. I am always honored when someone allows me to shine for a moment, but I will always, in the most professional way, let them know if something doesn’t feel right for me, and that’s ok.
Advocacy has been a journey for me, and I have learned so much from everyone I have met along the way. I would not be where I am today were it not for the special relationships I have made and so many people willing to lift me up. Today, I am working with my state senator on two bills to protect survivors, interning with KASAP, helping Indiana with a DNA upon arrest bill and an audit for untested kits, and participating in the Kentucky Attorney General’s Survivor Council.
With every stroke of a pen to a legislator, every call I make to support or oppose a bill, every time I speak out, testify for change in legislation, help a survivor, overcome my fears, go into my community and spread awareness and education, my offender loses his power over me. He no longer wins. Not anymore!
-By Michelle Kuiper, March 16, 2017
END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.