Now and then, I interview teens and adults who are doing something interesting, inspiring, and entrepreneurial – whether they are pursuing a particular interest, starting a non-profit or business venture, or somehow paved their own way to personal success and happiness. We can all learn from one another on how to better become leaders in our own lives, and I hope you find these conversations as inspirational as I do…
Today’s interview is with Alison Safran, who is finishing up her senior year at Mount Holyoke University who is the founder of Surviving in Numbers, a non-profit focused on sexual assault and domestic violence awareness and prevention. I first contacted Alison when The Myth of the Perfect Girl was about to released and I wanted permission to use a few of her photos (one of her photos is now the Myth Facebook page cover photo!).
Your Name: Alison Safran
Where are you located: Boston, MA
What inspired you to start Surviving in Numbers?
After experiencing sexual assault and going through the legal system afterwards, I felt I received no real justice and that my perpetrator wasn’t really punished at all. I figured others had had similar experiences, and wanted to offer them a space to share their stories anonymously.
How did you come up with the name?
The name just came to me, and is a play on the phrase “strength in numbers,” since there is also a strength in surviving. Given the large number of people who have shared their stories, there is strength in numbers there, too. Since the posters deal with “numbers” of someone’s experience (# of months it’s been, # of people they told, etc.)
Whenever we start a new venture, there is often an “aha!” moment (or two). How did this project evolve into a non-profit?
Many people wrote to me wanting to donate money to support the project, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking a personal check. I sought out lawyers to help me turn it into a non-profit, which has only further increased the reach of Surviving in Numbers and the capacity it has to grow.
In my book, The Myth of the Perfect Girl, I discuss the whole culture of perfectionism among teen and young adult women today – this notion that you have look a certain way, behave a certain way, and be a certain way to be accepted and adequate. How do you think that contributes to the shame around sexual assault and abuse?
I think there are two separate issues at play here, where there is so much stigma around being assaulted and also so much pressure to be perfect in general. Those two forces connect, and that’s part of why assault survivors can feel so much shame; they are often blamed for what they were wearing or how they “must have” been acting to “provoke” someone to assault them. Being victimized can often make people believe you are therefore not perfect, or that you are flawed or somehow responsible for what happened to you.
What were some of the challenges you had to deal with (or are still dealing with) in getting Surviving in Numbers started? How were you able to overcome those challenges (or how are you dealing with them now)?
Sometimes it’s hard to read so many stories, so I make sure to not read all of them at once. Also, since Surviving in Numbers is no longer just a website (I’ve worked to develop and implement prevention curriculum in schools this year, as well as launching collaborations with other organizations, etc.), it’s hard to balance all of it. I’m still a full-time college student, graduating next month, and have been running this non-profit on my own and devoting as much time to it as one would to a full-time job. Because I’m passionate about it, I really love that; but it is hard to balance all of my responsibilities.
Describe one particular moment when you stepped back from this project and said, “Wow – this is bigger than I ever imagined.”
I can think of many moments, but I’ll go with the most recent: this week, I received an email from a TV team in Australia who is featuring Surviving in Numbers in a fictional TV episode. One of the characters was assaulted, and the other talks about how isolating that must be; the character who was assaulted says that they found Surviving in Numbers, which has been “life-saving.” That was pretty amazing to read.
You are set to graduate from college soon (congratulations!!) What are your personal goals for your non-profit and your greater work?
I’m hoping to expand prevention curriculum, continue to run the website, and to host displays at more colleges this coming year. I plan to continue to work in the field of ending violence throughout my life.
How has starting “Surviving In Numbers” changed your life?
Surviving in Numbers has certainly made my last year of college a lot tougher and busier than I ever would have expected, just speaking in terms of the actual time commitment to running a non-profit. In terms of the meaning behind Surviving in Numbers, starting it has allowed me to feel more comfortable speaking out about my experience and has driven me further to end violence everywhere. I’m honored every day to be able to giving a voice to so many people who felt they had no place to go before Surviving in Numbers existed.
If you had one piece of advice for other teens or Millennials thinking of becoming entrepreneurs in their own lives, what would that be?
If you’re passionate, go for it. It only works, and it’s only fun and worth it, if you really care about what you’re doing.
What is one question I should have asked (and what is your answer)?
Hmmmm. Had you asked, how people can contribute to Surviving in Numbers, I’d direct them to the site if they want to share their own story, or, if they want to help support the organization, they can visit the current donation campaign.
And now, for some fun questions:
Three words to describe you: passionate, loyal, attentive
Dream vacation: I would love to hike around somewhere beautiful – whether that’s in California, Europe, or elsewhere.
Favorite way to spend a free afternoon: When it’s nice out, you can find me in Boston Common photographing flowers and people. If it’s winter, I’m likely to spend the afternoon napping, watching Netflix, or with friends.
Best movie of all time: Kids movies are the ones that always come to mind, for some reason! I’ll go with Matilda. I always admired her and really identified her as a kid, and still think she’s empowering now.
Favorite quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin
Last book you read for fun: I honestly can’t remember, but my favorite is “Second Helpings” by Megan McCafferty.
Best concert you’ve ever been in: Of the few concerts I’ve been to in my life, the NSync concert I went to at age 7 stands out! I loved them.
To relax and recharge, I… nap, take photos, hang out with friends, exercise
Favorite meal: My friend Heather and I have what’s usually a bi-weekly pasta date to get off campus and spend time together. I’ll definitely miss that once I graduate.