In October, three years after she was sexually assaulted, Ali Safran returned to the spot near a lake in Newton, Mass., where she said she was attacked.
Safran, now a 21-year-old rising senior at Mount Holyoke College, posted a sign on a fence that read: "Three years ago on this date, I was sexually assaulted here. Coming back to this spot still evokes nausea, but I return here to make a point. Sexual assault is preventable."
That sign became the inspiration for "Surviving In Numbers," a nonprofit corporation aimed at creating awareness about sexual assault using personal stories handwritten on posters, then displayed on college campuses. Despite legally being a corporation, the project is a "one-woman show," Safran said.
Safran was attacked in her car when she was in high school. She reported it, but Safran said the assailant was never convicted because she couldn't remember how he left the vehicle. "There were no alcohol or drugs involved, it's just when you're traumatized your body goes into shock and I was just in shock," Safran said. "The brain goes into shock and the brain tries to protect itself."
Safran avoided telling her parents for months, and had trouble sharing her story with others, worried how friends and classmates would react. But she felt compelled in October to post the sign, anonymously at first, after working as a rape crisis counselor in college, which she said helped her heal as a survivor.
"After I hung the sign, I thought other people must've had a similar experience," Safran said. She began reaching out to sexual abuse support groups at other Massachusetts colleges and putting up flyers on campuses.
She invited others to share their stories for her new project, first gathering in March at Boston University, then at Tufts. The survivors met Safran in a classroom, wrote out their stories on posters, then had their photos taken holding their signs over their faces. In April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Safran displayed the posters at the two campuses, then posted photos of them on Tumblr.
The Tumblr display drew strangers from around the United States, as well as Canada and Europe, to share their own stories and ask if they could help with donations. Eventually Safran sought nonprofit status, so she'd feel more comfortable receiving donations, which she uses to travel outside of Massachusetts to bring the project to other campuses.
Melissa C. Bermudez, a licensed clinical social worker with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said she isn't surprised to hear about strangers connecting over their recovery from sexual violence. "It's pretty common that people will reach out to non-family members or people they've just met because it's deemed a little safer," Bermudez said.
Survivors may fear "being judged by the people who love you and care for you," Bermudez said.
Safran believes silence is a problem not only in preventing assaults, but in providing victims with the support they need. "Obviously, this isn't a new problem for colleges or for society," Safran said. "Sometimes it takes someone else speaking out to get them to speak out."
View photos from the "Surviving In Numbers" project in the slideshow below: