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The Monument Quilt: Using quilting to inspire public healing

The Monument Quilt: Using quilting to inspire public healing

Credit_ Nate Gregorio

Sam: Can you tell me a little about how Force: Upsetting Rape Culture got started? 

Hannah Brancato: FORCE started in 2010 as an art exhibition called FORCE: On The Culture Of Rape. It was meant to identify and name rape culture during a time when it wasn’t a conversation that most people were having. It specifically came about in response to a rape joke that was made by a comedian in Baltimore that caused a lot of harm to survivors and members of the arts community here. We felt that as a community we didn’t really have any space to address it or process it, or to be clear about what’s ok and what’s not ok. So the exhibition identified parts of rape culture. We were talking about consent with a piece by a youth media group called New Lens. It talks about the experience of a survivor of domestic violence in a video piece. There was a trans sex worker who talked about their experience in the show as well. 

Reference Number: 2684, Credit_ FORCE
But we quickly realized that while the art audience conversation that we had was really important, we wanted to reach a much broader audience. Of course all of the work that FORCE has done since then has been really informed by wanting to be connected to as many people as possible and make the conversation about rape culture, consent, and understanding survivorship more main stream. 

Sam: So all of this initially came from this art show. Was that in the DC area? 

Hannah: Yeah, we’re based in Baltimore, so this was at the Current Gallery in Baltimore. 

Sam: Where did the idea for the Monument Quilt come from?

Pink Loves Consent, Credit_ FORCE
Hannah: FORCE did a series of other actions after the art show. The one that got us the biggest audience was Pink Loves Consent which was a spoof of Victoria’s Secret where we made Pink consent themed underwear and a website to get people talking about consent. I mention that when talking about where the Monument Quilt came from because as a collective we realized that we had a pretty significant audience after that action in addition to envisioning the culture that we want to live in which is a culture of consent and a culture of consent that is widely understood. As widely understood as a company like Victoria’s Secret. We also realized that we need to reckon with the number of survivors, including ourselves, who have a need to reconnect with community and heal in communal spaces. It was also very inspired by and influenced by the AIDS Memorial Quilt which is a similar project that is ongoing. It memorializes people who died of AIDS. It specifically arose out of the homophobic response to AIDS that happened in the US. Our government was refusing to conduct research on the drugs that could save people’s lives. The AIDS Memorial Quilt created a space for families and loved ones who were losing people to AIDS to be able to reconnect and shed the stigma and shame. In a similar way we thought about creating a public ritual for grief that would help us join together and shed the stigma and shame around survivorship. Again the Monument Quilt started in 2013, so this is very much before #MeToo and before a lot of the public conversations that we’re very used to now. The Monument Quilt was really intended to create a public platform for survivors that didn’t currently exist. The other inspiration that I always want to make sure to mention is that in a book called ‘Trauma and Recovery’ Dr. Judith Herman talks about the need for public monuments to help people, specifically who have trauma, to heal from their grief. That individually healing is only part of the process. But that community healing is what public monuments can do. She points out in the book that there is no public monument to survivors. In creating the Monument Quilt we were creating what we saw as the first national and the largest public monument to survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. 

The Monument Quilt on the National Mall, Credit_ Nate Larson
Sam: Why did you decide to do a quilt instead of any other type of art piece?

Hannah: I think quilts do a number of things. As a material they’re very connected to history. Thinking about the process of quilting in itself is healing. The tangible process of sewing your quilt together and putting your story onto the quilt is an active catharsis and a part of the healing, as well as the quilt by itself being a healing space. Taking the quilt which has historically been feminine work and elevating it to this realm of monument is also a part of the intention of creating the Monument Quilt. They’re also comforting. It also maybe makes you think about heritage and family history, which when we’re talking about sexual violence we have to talk about family violence, we have to talk about intergenerational trauma, and child sexual abuse. I think quilts lend themselves to those conversations as well. So there’s lots of different reasons. Then also the co-founders, myself and Rebecca Nagle, both had a background in textiles as a part of the form of art that we were making at the time.  

Credit_ FORCE
Sam: What was your background in textiles? Were you doing quilting or weavings?

Hannah: Some quilting. I worked at the House Of Ruth Maryland, which was a domestic violence shelter. The first quilts that I made were community quilts that I made there. I was also doing dye work. My mom actually made a series that I should mention. FORCE is a collective and the Monument Quilt is a very collective project. So if you talk to any of us you will get a very different part of the story. But for me personally, my mom had made a series of memorial quilts for my sister Emmy, who died in a car accident in 2005, that she then gave to members of our family. She started that before the Monument Quilt started. I found it to be really inspiring and also healing. It gave our family something to connect around. It had been such a tragic loss for all of us. So I don’t know if there’s lots of background and reasons. But part of my background with quilting does connect to my mom and my mom’s memorial quilt for Emmy. 

"We’ve always seen ourselves as stewards of these precious pieces of art"

Reference Number: 3089, Credit_ FORCE
Sam: Over the past six years FORCE has collected nearly 3,000 squares for the quilt. Can you describe one that really stood out to you?

Hannah: That’s such a good question. It’s hard to pick one. I guess that there’s one that we have shared and that I have shared really often over the last six years. There’s one that says “I reclaim my body as my sanctuary”. That really speaks to me because as a survivor of intimate partner violence as a teenager, many of my early experiences with sex and intimacy were complicated. My story isn’t super clear. But the message about reclaiming my body as my sanctuary is something that I just relate to and it’s an ongoing process for me. I don’t feel like I’m at an endpoint with that. I feel like that’s just something that I always have to aspire to as a survivor. So I find that quote comforting for that reason and helpful personally to me. One thing that I’ve been really excited about with the display is the app. I don’t know if you had a chance to look at the app that we released?

Sam: I was going to ask you about that!

Hannah: The app catalogues every single quilt square which is such an exciting thing! It’s pretty accurate. There’s maybe a couple more quilts that we’ll get up there. We used the app for people to navigate the event. But now it’s an archive that people can always use to view the quilt squares and look through them. Honestly, I’m looking forward to spending some time with the app. As much as we’ve all spent time working with the quilts in the studio our studio director, Shanti Flagg, is the one who’s seen and unfolded more of the quilts than anyone else in the collective. In the beginning years I definitely did more of that work. But towards the end my work ended up being more about creating the layout plan for the display, fundraising, and more of the digital work. Anyways, so I feel like there are so many quilts that I haven’t even seen yet. That one that I mentioned is from 2014. It’s from the very beginning of the project.  

Reference Number: 3063, Credit_ FORCE
Sam: How did the idea for the app come about and what are some of your favorite features of it?

Hannah: It came about from wanting to carefully catalog and document everybody’s quilts. We’ve always seen ourselves as stewards of these precious pieces of art that survivors and allies have made and sent to us and put in our care for us to then create public spaces for all of our communities to grieve together. It’s a great responsibility. So for me the app is definitely meant to honor all of those quilts by having them documented. We haven’t really had the chance to let our community know about this and we’ll probably work on it a little in the fall. But we actually have a feature where survivors who made quilts can add a statement about their quilt. But they can’t do it directly from the app they would have to contact us. 

Reference Number: 1865, Credit_ FORCE
So we had this concept for the app, but apps are expensive. I’m so grateful to the tech collective, Sassafras Tech, who ended up creating it. They did such an amazing job. They definitely did it within our budget. Our grassroots organization, non-profit budget. 

I love that you can sort the quilts by tags. People used different tags when they created their quilts. The tags can help you kind of see affinity groups within. Intersectionality of sexual violence with other forms of oppression is a really important part of the Monument Quilt and all of FORCE’s work. So by using the tags you can really see stories that specifically speak about the ways in which people’s identities affected their experiences as survivors, whether it’s an experience of sexual or intimate partner violence. Which I think often gets erased from the mainstream conversation. So I love that part of the app. Then of course as I said that we’re able to have all of the quilts honored. Then when you go to the home page it automatically reloads every time. So you can kind of go down a search thread. You can follow a search term and let it lead you to another search term and see lots of different kinds of quilts that way. But you can also just go back to the home page and it will bring you to a different set of quilts every time.

The Monument Quilt on the National Mall, Credit_ Nate Larson

Sam: Where was the first display of the Quilt and what was that experience like for you?

Hannah: The first display was here in Baltimore. In our home town. We organized it in partnership with the Spiritual Empowerment Center, who were a part of the very first quilt workshop. We learned a lot from that first display. We displayed, I can’t remember if it was the first fifty or one hundred blankets. But we learned a lot about giving people fair warning and giving people options for how they engage with the quilt. We want survivors, or really anybody who’s seeing the quilt, to always have an option. As much as it’s red, it’s big, and we want people to confront it, people should also have a choice about how they engage with stories of trauma. We learned a lot through graphic design and through signage. We got a lot of feedback from our advisors. 

Sam: What has been the most rewarding thing that you’ve taken away from this project?

Credit_ FORCE
Hannah: The project has led us into creating an organization and a collective that is different than anything that I’ve ever been a part of before. I don’t know if your second question is what’s been the hardest thing. But it’s both the hardest and the most rewarding thing. There have been so many people that have been touched in some way by the project. Whether they just saw a post on line, especially now after the display, or if they made a quilt, or if they were involved for all six years there are so many people that were a part of it. We also became aware really early on, and I had a steep learning curve around how to practice those same values within the day to day operations of the collective. As we started to grow this organization and have jobs for people I had to really think about how to do things in a better way like other non profits and other organizations do. So both the most rewarding and the most challenging, for me, has been the growth of the organization that has had to happen just to support this massive amazing project.

"I think that our intention with the display was definitely for survivors needs to be centered and it seems like that’s been the experience with it. Even online"

Credit_ FORCE
Sam: You recently displayed the quilt in its entirety for the first and last time on the National Mall in DC. Did you always envision the quilt being displayed there? 

Hannah: Yeah, that was always the plan. We thought it would actually happen a lot sooner than it did. When we started the project in 2013 we actually intended to bring it to the National Mall the following year. Then we basically pushed it back by a year until finally we stopped telling people when it was going to be displayed until we had it. And that’s because, like I said, for the three day event to happen a lot of community organizing and building had to happen in a good way. Our organization had to be in a healthy place. So we did all of that work and got all of our ducks in a row. 

Reference number: 1423, Credit_ FORCE
But yeah, the vision was always to have it on the National Mall. It ended up being our fiftieth display. That wasn’t planned, but that was kind of a nice round number to end on. I’m sure that we will show sections of the quilt again. But we won’t show the quilt in its entirety again.

Sam: And why is that? 

Hannah: It’s because the project is very labor intensive. For some of us it’s been our whole life for six years. I think that it’s important for people to be able to continue to see the quilts. But I also think it’s important for FORCE to be able to push the conversation forward in different ways than just this one project does. For us to have room to do that we need to be able to put resources into other projects. Our plan is to archive the quilt by dispersing sections of it around the country so museums, institutions, or anti violence programs that participated in the quilt can collect a section of the quilt. 

The Monument Quilt on the National Mall, Credit_ Nate Larson
Sam: So far, what’s been the response to this most recent display?

Hannah: It’s been really positive. Of course we hoped that it would get a lot of attention. It came at a really good time, because people have been talking about sexual violence publicly over the last few years. I think that the spaces that we have to talk about it don’t always put survivors needs first. Or it’s just like twitter. It’s not even like the organizers behind it don’t put survivors needs first. It’s just the way that the internet works. I think that our intention with the display was definitely for survivors needs to be centered and it seems like that’s been the experience with it. Even online. So that’s been really positive.  

Reference number 2789, Credit_ FORCE
Sam: Are you having any displays in the New York City area in the future?

Hannah: We don’t have anything on the books right now. We’re definitely open if folks are interested. The way that our displays have always happened in the past is that there’s always an organizer in the community that wants to make it happen, raise funding for it, and they bring us out. So I would encourage anybody that reads about it and is wanting to have a display in their community to reach out to us. The community partners that we’ve worked with have always been the ones to organize the programming. We’ve thought about it like, we’re bringing the quilt and we’re building the space so we’re asking the partners to think about how to reach the community. So yes, we would love to work with anybody that wants to make it happen. 

Credit_ FORCE
Sam: I know that you are no longer collecting squares for the quilt, but how can someone become a part of this now?

Hannah: We are not still collecting squares for the quilt. But we left all of the resources on our website. We had developed a workshop guide. People are definitely welcome to still use that guide and organize their own programming in their own communities. We just wouldn’t be asking them to mail the quilts to us when they’re done. But there’s no reason why people can’t make a quilt, display it them themselves, and keep the project going in that way.

"I think that being able to honor our own needs as survivors is really essential, important, and hard. "

Sam: Your organization talks a lot about the concept of radical belief. What does radical belief mean to you?

Reference number: 2991, Credit_ FORCE
Hannah: I think that how we talk about sexual violence… like sometimes when we get into the rhetoric around it we kind of forget how hard it is to actually up root rape culture in our own lives. So for me radical belief is about practicing in our own lives the ability to stop, when somebody within our families or friends, discloses to us and really check what our first gut response is. Especially if the perpetrator of the abuse is also somebody that is within our community. That’s when I think that the rhetoric can get a little challenging. I think that a big part of it is checking what is influencing our ability to believe. Being really aware and critical of the ways that race, sexual orientation, ability, and identity over all influences who we think of as believable. And again it starts to sound like rhetoric, but I really mean for us to examine how is that happening in our own lives. In what ways do those kinds of biases show up for ourselves. Even for those of us who do this kind of work and really care about ending rape culture, really taking the time to think about the intersections of rape culture and white supremacy. 

Credit_ FORCE
I guess I will also say that belief in ourselves is a really important part of radical belief. Which is very much a work in progress for me. Self doubt is a big part of rape culture. I think that being able to honor our own needs as survivors is really essential, important, and hard. 

Sam: You also have a Monument Quilt self care zine. What’s the story behind that?

Hannah: We have a guide to Knowing How To Support Survivors that was developed by our leadership team which is on our website. The zine was created by Thea Ferdinand who interned with us. She’s going into her sophomore year of college and created the zine as her own project that I would encourage you to talk to her about. I think that it was inspired by or in some ways motivated by her time working at FORCE this year. But it was also an independent project. We try to uplift the work of those who are in leadership and those who are involved in FORCE. Whether or not it’s the Monument Quilt itself. 

Credit_ FORCE
There’s a few different versions of our self care resources out there. There’s another really good one called Knowing What Kind of Self Care You Need on the Monument Quilt website and that’s developed by one of the same leadership team members plus another, Kalima Young and Kate Bishop. I really love that one, because it actually walks through how to check in with yourself. Which for as much as we talk about self care this one talks about how to do it in a very practical way. If you go to the MonumentQuilt.org and click on the workshop resources tab it’s in that section. 

Sam: What’s next for FORCE? Do you have any upcoming projects? I’m sure you’re going to need to take some time to recover from this last display, but what’s on the horizon for you guys?

Reference number: 1699, Credit_ FORCE
Hannah: Yeah, we’re going to take a generous amount of time to reflect personally. Then to reflect as a collective. The staff collective is Shanti Flagg, E Cadoux, Charnell Covert, Mora Fernández, and myself. One thing that Charnell and E have been working on is a youth program. Youth Voices For Consent, which was our first youth program, is going to be continuing. Also we are going to be sharing another listening campaign which we started last year. A listening campaign to disrupt rape culture. Charnell Covert has been leading by teaching folks, particularly in Baltimore, what survivors have shared about what it’s going to take to create a Baltimore without rape. So that’s where we’re starting. But I think that we’re going to have a lot of space to think, grow, and dream in the fall. Along with even more things that I haven’t even considered yet. 


Hannah Brancato, Credit_ FORCE
I want to thank Hannah for sharing her story with this community. You should definitely take a look at their new app for more information and images from this project. You can follow them on instagram @upsettingrapeculture and on facebook. 

If you or someone you know is looking for help they have a wonderful page where you can find a list of local DC and national resources available to survivors.  

-Samantha

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