Kyra Jones is a former Resilience volunteer, filmmaker, artist, advocate and educator. She is currently the Assistant Director of Sexual Violence Response Services and Advocacy at Northwestern University. Resilience spoke with Kyra about her career in sexual violence prevention, the upcoming film she is writing, directing, and producing, and how she combines her passions for filmmaking and sexual assault advocacy.
Continue to read our interview with Kyra.
What inspired you to get involved with Resilience?
I am an alumnus of Northwestern University, and I’m still working there now – they can’t get rid of me. For the full four years that I was at Northwestern, I was a member of a group called SHAPE which stands for Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators. That was really my introduction into sexual violence work as well as sex education. I started being more interested in talking about the sexual health aspects of that group, like sexual pleasure and making sure that my fellow peers have safe, consensual, fun sex. I felt like preventing sexual assault is important, but my bread and butter was the sexual health stuff. Then I unfortunately was sexually assaulted the end of my freshman year. With the ways that I had to try to navigate all of the systems that were supposed to be helping me, including the police and the hospitals and universities, I realized that they were not equipped to give me help in a way that I needed, and this really inspired me to be more active in the sexual violence prevention and advocacy end of the student group that I was in. We’d had a lot of interaction with Resilience. They would come and do trainings for us and events with us. They were one of our biggest collaborators. I now advise SHAPE. So, my senior year I was like I think I really want to consider doing this full time for a career or at least have it be a large part of my life going forward. So, then I started volunteering with Resilience. I did the full 60-hour training and was a medical volunteer for a year.
What was your biggest takeaway from your time as a Resilience volunteer?
There was so much but the biggest one, and one that I was not expecting, was that the training was so comprehensive. I remember, it was maybe the second training, we were going over the history of sexual violence and I was actually really surprised at how intersectional it was and how much it focused on the history of sexual violence in the United States being a tool of racial oppression and sexual violence against Black women. That’s when I learned about Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks for the first time. It was so shocking to me that I had never heard of this before. I had never heard Recy Taylor’s name. I had never heard that Rosa Parks was an anti-rape activist and organizer years and years before the bus. I was a gender studies double major, and I took a lot of African American Studies classes and I’m like, why has no one talked to me about this? I went to the head of the Gender Studies department and I was like, did you know about this? and she was like “no” and I was like What? What?! I was so shook by how feminist history and Black history had erased Black women’s contributions to the anti-sexual violence movement so blatantly and strategically. I wanted to start to bring that history back to the forefront. Because of that piece of information I got from my Resilience training, I ended up doing an independent study on sexual violence in the Black community, specifically. I tied it into what anti-rape organizations and rape crisis centers, like Resilience, and even CARE, where I work now, can be doing to provide more culturally competent services to Black survivors. Things kind of snowballed from there. I ended up helping Black Youth Project 100 with their anti-sexual violence new members training and continued to expand my knowledge about that specific topic. I can’t say it never would have happened without Resilience but it would have been very much delayed if I hadn’t had that training. That’s one of the many ways it had a huge impact on me.
What drew you to work as the Assistant Director of Sexual Violence Response Services and Advocacy at Northwestern University and how does your work there relate to your work at Resilience?
As a result of being in SHAPE, I ended up also becoming a student worker for my work study. Before CARE even technically existed, there was one person doing all the work of CARE and then she founded CARE my senior year. So, the last few years I was the CARE student worker and then I graduated and CARE got a grant from the Office of Violence Against Women. They decided they wanted to use the remainder of it to hire some part time workers and they asked me to come back. I was super excited to come back. I love CARE. Being in SHAPE was by far the highlight of my time at Northwestern. I had gotten the training from Resilience that helped me in that position. So, they had me come back and interview and I ended up getting the role. It was always supposed to be temporary because the grant was going to end at a certain point. Then there were just some shifts that happened. Right as I was supposed to leave, some people left, other people got promoted, and there was a position open. My boss, who is also a Resilience alum, had to advocate really hard for me to get the position because I don’t have a master’s degree. But everyone was like “Kyra has been doing this, she’s been in this position so long, she knows what she’s talking about, she doesn’t need a master’s degree”. It wasn’t a love for Northwestern, it was a love for this work and seeing how much providing survivor-centered advocacy resources, and sexual health and pleasure information shifts peoples entire experiences. I knew that I wouldn’t have made it through my time at Northwestern if I hadn’t gotten that as well and hadn’t been in SHAPE. So, I thought I’d absolutely want to be a part of making those experiences much better and livable, or even joyful around consensual sex. I want to help give that experience to other students coming into the school. If I hadn’t volunteered at Resilience and gotten that experience, I don’t think I would have been qualified to have this job. Almost every staff member that’s been at CARE has come through Resilience.
How does your identity as a Black, queer person inform your role as an educator and advocate?
There are so many white ladies doing this work, so many. A lot of them are great and are anti-racist and intersectional. But it’s so different talking about your experience, particularly something as traumatic as sexual assault, if your experience of it is something that is very tied into your Blackness, or your queerness, or any other marginalized identity. You’re trying to tell this to someone who does not share your identity, and then they’re asking you questions. They don’t understand what you’re saying and you also have to educate them. Like, okay well this is the reason I didn’t want to go to the police, this history of police brutality. I don’t want to give you an African American studies lecture while I am trying to get services. So, I know that I have to be really mindful and intentional about learning about the identities that I have and how they impact my experience, or other people’s experiences of survivorhood and sexual violence. And also learn purposefully about identities that I don’t have and how those things will impact somebodies’ sexual assault, or even sexual pleasure. If I didn’t have my own intersectional identities and had difficulty navigating systems because of those, I would probably not have the same level of care and empathy just out of the gate. I think for people who have less marginalized identities that’s something that you have to be told and you have to learn and decide, I’m going to care about this. But it’s like, I have to care about this to survive, and therefore I understand other people have to care about it to survive too.
You’re writing, directing, and producing a film called “Go to the Body”, can you tell me about that?
Go to the Body is a narrative feature film. It’s a boxing drama about sexual violence in the Black community, particularly in Black activist and organizing communities that was partially inspired by my own personal experience of being sexually assaulted by an activist. And unfortunately, I have heard too many stories about people being assaulted by activists and by folks who are supposed to be fighting for their liberation, or supposedly feminist or supposedly anti-rape. That experience of trusting someone not only because of their relationship to you, but also because of the politics that they claim to have, only to have them harm you, is a different level of trauma – at least it was for me. I brought in the boxing particularly after this last summer when we were always hearing the phrase “protect Black women”, and people would say “people of other identities should be stepping in to prioritize the safety of Black women, the way that Black women have always stepped in to fight for Black men, or fight for women of all races”. Our issues and the harm that we experience doesn’t get that same attention. But then I thought, what does that protection look like? Because I hear a lot of men say “you know if anyone tried to hurt my partner, or if anyone tried to hurt a Black woman near me, I’d fight them” and I’m like, well, sometimes you can’t fight them. Sometimes it’s a situation where you’re not there, or physical defense just wouldn’t have been effective. I think sexual violence is one of those situations because they don’t happen in a setting where there’s other people around. So that was something I was really interested in exploring though Kendrick’s character, the secondary survivor experience, because we forget that watching a loved one go through a sexual assault is a trauma in itself. That can have mental health impacts and that’s something folks need to heal from. But when somebody is looking to be supported or protected, it’s not always a physical support or physical protection. It’s like, I need you to believe me and see me and fight for what it is I need for my healing and not fight for what it is you think I should be doing. So that was where the genesis of the story came from. It follows a young Black couple living in Chicago, Sanaa and Kendrick, and what their experience is in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Kendrick as a secondary survivor, Sanaa as the primary survivor and them both wanting different things for their individual healing and for Sanaa’s specific healing, and what happens when two people paths to healing are going in different directions but they still need to be aligned. Which I think is something a lot of folks experience and I don’t see represented television and film very often. Usually, I see the survivor’s partner is either like, “you cheated on me, you’re a whore, I hate you” and they leave or they’re like, not there, they don’t exist, or they’re like “well, whatever you want” and barely a part of the story. Healing is so dependent on community especially when you are someone of a marginalized identity who is not able to access systems in the same way. So those are some of the themes that we’re mining through in the script. We just released the proof-of-concept trailer, which we crowdfunded for over the summer. We successfully crowdfunded $20,000 so now next steps are to use that trailer to draw public attention to the story but also to pitch to investors and to name talent and people who can help us get the full feature made, which is really exciting.
What made you decide to combine your passion for filmmaking with your passion for sexual assault advocacy?
This is what I do with my life. I talk about sex and sexual violence and I advocate for Black women, Black trans folks, Black survivors, Black people, even within the margins of Blackness that have more oppression that they have to face. Being a Black woman and a Black survivor myself, my stories tend to focus, not even purposefully, on Black women’s experiences with intimate relationships, with sex, and also the fight for liberation, for true intersectional liberation. Part of it just came naturally but also, I hate the way Hollywood portrays survivors and sexual violence. I can count on one hand the number of shows and films that I’ve seen that were not actively harmful, I’ve felt. I love I May Destroy You; I thought that was really great. There are some documentaries that I’ve thought were really informative, like The Rape of Recy Taylor and Surviving R. Kelly. But as far as narrative film and television go, that one exception of I May Destroy You, I have felt so alienated watching. I don’t feel seen. I often feel triggered, upset. I also see, working with survivors, the impact that those false narratives have. I know, particularly Black survivors have come in and they’re like, “well, this thing happened to me a few years ago but I didn’t think I could consider it sexual assault because it didn’t look like what it looks like on SVU or it didn’t look like what it looked like on Thirteen Reasons Why or whatever” and I’m like, “that’s because those are lies” and how can you know how to name your experience if you’ve never seen anything like it before and if there’s very, very limited portrayal of what sexual violence looks like and even what the survivors response or experience is like. Even speaking with Mariá [Director of Advocacy Services at Resilience] yesterday during her amazing presentation, Neurobiology of Trauma, like when we see survivors on screen they’re crying on the floor of the shower. Some people use humor to cope with their trauma, some people are really lethargic afterwards, some people overwork themselves to distract their thoughts. I wanted to expand what that response looks like and also what we consider a sexual assault so that people will be more likely to access the care that need. And to also just have more discussions in their communities and in the spaces they inhabit about sexual violence and rape culture.
On the film’s website, it says that Go to the Body is “a love letter to Black survivors”. What is your main goal of this film, specifically in relation to Black survivors?
In the limited narratives that I have seen about Black survivors, I have not frequently seen them be loved, especially by a romantic partner. I’m just thinking of the few I can think of off the top of my head. Even I May Destroy You, her partner is really terrible to her, in response to the attack, and she has love from her community and her friends. I haven’t experienced the type of love that I would like to see. So, I was like let me write it, but also complicate it because it’s not like it’s an easy thing to get to, your partner supporting you and loving you exactly the way you need to after a relationship has changed because of this trauma. It takes a while and it’s not linear. They also have to do their own healing. I wanted to show that this is possible, it can happen. It takes work on both peoples ends but it’s not hopeless. I frequently feel hopeless, sometimes, watching what the media has to say about what Black survivors deserve as far as love goes. Go to the Body is really focused on the healing journey. It’s not focused on the assault itself. You don’t even ever see it. I was never interested in depicting the sexual assault, for many reasons. I like stories that give hope. I don’t ever need an easy answer, like, oh if you do xyz you will heal and everything will be fine, your PTSD will magically disappear. Someone just said this to me in a Resilience support group. It was, “trauma is an injury, it’s not a disease”. It’s not like you have a chronic illness forever. It’s like, if you do the right things, if you broke your leg and you went to physical therapy, you treat it well, it can heal. That doesn’t mean you might not have a little bit of a limp, or you might not be able to do the same sports you did before. But it doesn’t mean you can’t still have a fulfilling life. I wanted to portray that as well.