Ali Miller was raped at 17 by a boy she had called to help her home after she drank too much. The details are similar to the thousands of stories women tell about their assaults: She could barely keep consciousness; she remembers him lying on top of her; she was left in a driveway with her underwear gone and bruises on her thighs; she tried to escape the shame and the memory by attending college in another state.
But one day, when she had returned to her home in Minnesota, Miller met Chantelle Baxter, the founder of Be Bangles, which makes bracelets with phrases to remind girls that they are important. Baxter encouraged Miller to share her story online on her website. At first Miller, outright refused. Ultimately, she agreed and her story went live October 2015. At first, she was frightened. But to her surprise, publishing her story helped Miller realize she could move on from
what happened to her.
What if everyone could do this? she wondered.
And I Am Movement officially began.
I Am Movement is an online photography project for college-age women to share their stories online, and hopefully reach someone who's going through the same ordeal.
Women have used the project to speak about their grief, their trauma, their sexuality, their insecurity with their major, everything. Many women said they felt a huge weight lifted off their shoulders the second their photo was taken. Their story was captured and they were giving it to the world. The rules of the movement are simple: Write down a statement beginning with “I am,” have a story prepared, and wear a black top. The most important rule is to be willing to have your story shared with thousands of people online.
I Am Movement is one of many college art projects inspired by sexual assault. Many projects such as Carry That Weight, Project Unspoken, and Denim Day have raised awareness for the number of sexual assaults that occur on college campuses.
1 in 5 college-aged women are raped, and less than 12 percent of victim-survivors report their assault, according to the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota.
Miller, now 21, started giving speeches nationwide about her experiences as her project grew larger and larger. Miller hopes to grow I Am Movement so that it raises awareness for not only college students, but high school students and adults as well.
“I think it’s important for younger girls especially to see... you can have [these problems] in middle and high school too,” Miller said.
The movement first started with a picture of Miller herself holding up a sign reading, “I am not a victim I am a survivor.”
The second she posted it on social media, she felt a weight lifted off her shoulders. Miller wanted to help other girls feel that same sense of relief. She gathered five girls from her sorority and had them make their own “I am” statements.
University of Minnesota sophomore Sydney Kaye shared her story for the first time with Miller, and the second time with I Am Movement.
“I was sexually assaulted by someone when I was in preschool,” Kaye said. “I kind of locked it up in my brain, I’d have nightmares about it and I honestly wasn’t sure if it was a true event or if it was a literal nightmare.”
Having her story posted was like a “breath of fresh air,” Kaye said.
Miller describes I Am Movement as “a new mindset for women all around the world.”
“My whole goal was to create community between people by talking about things they don’t want to talk about... things that are really looked down on talking about,” she said. “Really just trying to talk about why it’s important to talk about those things.”
Tristen Johnson, a senior at the University of Minnesota, wanted to use the opportunity I Am Movement gave her to speak about helping others.
“I work hard through communication, empathy, and connection to embrace everyone for their beauty and to help victims become survivors,” Johnson wrote in her statement.
Johnson, a family social sciences major, didn’t feel comfortable disclosing her own struggles, but still loves the project.
“The movement makes... them face and also own who they really are,” she said.
There have been other similar projects on Instagram trying to change the climate around mental health.
“I appreciate the ugliness of the I Am Movement because I think it’s so much more authentic,” Johnson said. “This girl is so great, but you don’t know the true struggles, trials and tribulations she’s going through to put on this ‘great face.’”
Such movements are one response to the lack of help women often get from police departments or other law enforcement when they are assaulted — even in the face of bold bragging by the assaulter. In Miller’s own case, two weeks after the incident, one of her friends apologized for what happened to her.
“What are you talking about?” Miller asked him.
The friend said he had heard her attacker. “He’s bragging about how he f---ed an unconscious girl,” the friend said, according to Miller.
Miller later contacted the police in her hometown of Edina. Police interviewed about 30 people, but were unable to collect enough evidence to convict him of anything.
“There’s something about getting justice through something other than the legal system,” Miller said. “We’re getting justice by talking about it.”
I Am Movement grows larger every day.
I Am Movement’s Instagram page has over 2,700 followers and has uploaded more than 100 girls’ individual stories. The movement has expanded from only college-age women to women of all ages. It has grown so large that Miller is unable to publish every story submitted.
“It was just supposed to help a few girls,” Kaye said about the movement’s success. “It wasn’t supposed to go anywhere.”
In fall of 2016, Miller traveled to Michigan to interview more women. The event there was so large that Miller was given a team to assist her. Such growth pains are challenging for Miller, who began the project in such an intimate way.
“It’s harder not being as hands on,” she said. “It’s my baby, I don’t want other people to touch it.”
She hopes to continue with I Am Movement after graduation.
“I saw how much [Miller] was growing, I want to be where she is,” Kaye said. “ I didn’t feel alone anymore.”
Photos courtesy I Am Movement
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Tiffany Lukk is a senior at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities where she studies journalism and Japanese. She’s worked at the Minnesota Daily for over a year. When Tiffany’s not writing, she likes to play piano, violin or ukulele for her cat. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @tea_ffany.