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The Courage to Converse: Finding Our Voices

By Noelle Harden, Health and Nutrition Educator

As teachers, scholars, and leaders, our voices are sometimes the most powerful tool that we have in our Extension toolbox.

It may come as a surprise to my colleagues that I have struggled in recent years to find my own voice. Over the last five years, I have developed a reputation for being someone who speaks out, who listens, who stands up for what I believe in with strength and courage.

Singing in front of Extension colleagues at a 2016 conference
that kicked off the Courage to Converse series.
Photo credit: Jessica Barnes.

But on the inside, I have felt crushed by the weight of a burden that, until recently, I never thought I would talk about in public. I am writing today after realizing that the personal and the professional spheres are impossible to truly separate. I am writing today to help others find their own voice.

Sometimes, finding your voice happens through a small but significant act. Last week, millions of women voiced their collective outrage about sexual harassment by sharing two words: Me Too.

These simple words required great courage of the women who wrote them. These drops of honesty and resilience amounted to a tidal wave, a glaring, impossible-to-ignore statement that we are not going to accept this suffering in silence any longer.

Occasionally, when someone finds their voice, it comes out as a roar. This seems to happen most often when individuals use their positional power to take a bold stand, like an actress making a political statement during an awards acceptance speech. Taking a bold stand produces inevitable backlash in our society, accusations of being angry or crazy or inappropriate — especially if you are a woman. But where would we be if it were not for the boldness and personal sacrifice of the suffragettes, of the liberal feminists, of the many other women in history who were light years ahead of their time? I likely would not be writing this statement today.

Suffragettes with flag. Title from unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negatives or caption cards. Photo shows women suffrage hikers General Rosalie Jones, Jessie Stubbs, and Colonel Ida Craft, who is wearing a bag labeled "Votes for Women pilgrim leaflets" and carrying a banner with a notice for a "Woman Suffrage Party. Mass meeting. Opera House. Brooklyn Academy of Music. January 9th at 8:15 p.m."
Suffrage hikers General Rosalie Jones, Jessie Stubbs, and Colonel Ida Craft.
Photo credit: Library of Congress.

For me, it was a long journey to find my own voice. My lifelong struggle with self-doubt went unnoticed by those who knew me mostly through my accomplishments. In my now-failed marriage, my struggle was exploited through an accelerating pattern of abuse that eventually morphed into physical violence. I wish that I could say that the first time he hit me, I woke up, took my power back, and left. But that was not what happened. Instead, I blamed myself. I hid my scars and lied to my friends and family. I turned inward, allowing him to force me further into isolation and despair.

But I did eventually find my voice. It started with a couple of friends who called me out on my secrets and guilt. Friends who supported and listened, but more important, insisted that I take action to protect myself and my son, insisted I go to the police, insisted I get an Order for Protection. Friends who made the phone calls and did the hard work and risked our very friendship in order to help me. Because sometimes listening is just not enough — friends who took action paved the path for me to find my voice.

Cobblestone street walk
Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images.

Even after I took those steps with the support of my friends, the system continued to silence my voice. I was silenced by my lawyer, who told me to tone it down in court and say nothing in response when my ex-husband was slandering me publicly. I was silenced by the editor of my local paper, who acknowledged the power and truth of my story, but still has not published it for fear of getting sued. I was silenced by the judge, who allowed my abuser to cross-examine me in court and present his irrelevant lies solely as a means to continue to shame and hurt me.

If the system is not going to allow our voices to be heard, we have to change that system. If our society is one that ridicules and oppresses women, we have to call out that society. If the organizations we’re a part of could be doing more to make systemic change, we need to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable. We need to exercise our collective power and let our voices ring loud and clear — enough is enough.

I finally went public with my story because I realized that this burden of abuse is not mine alone to carry. In early October, the beginning of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I heard the terrible news about Vanessa Danielson from Minneapolis, who was burned to death while she slept — murdered by her boyfriend in a shocking incident that could have been prevented if the system had worked harder to protect her, if the system had heard her voice.

At that moment, it hit me: Our collective silence is our collective misery. And I decided I would not be part of that anymore.

In true millennial fashion, I started by sharing my story on Facebook. But I am not stopping there. I will continue to keep talking about the hard stuff, and to encourage everyone around me to do the same. If you find yourself struggling and voiceless, please start talking. Talk to a counselor, your supervisor, a friend, your mom, a colleague — it doesn’t matter, just start the conversation. Once you break the silence, you will be amazed how fast the healing can start. Isolation is a barrier often constructed by abusers and reinforced by systems. As difficult as it may be, breaking through that barrier yields great power and relief.

Heart in barbwire frames flock of birds in cloudscape background
Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images.

Some people may wonder why I have chosen to go public with my story in a professional realm, for lifting my voice is not without risk. I am not doing this for the sake of my own voice. Rather, this is a call to raise all of our voices — as Extension professionals who help communities face tough issues every day, as women who are tired of accepting a culture of abuse and harassment, and as people who care enough to take action.

Our voices are real. Our voices are powerful. Our voices matter.

Editor's note: University of Minnesota employees may contact the Employee Assistance Program to address any personal or work concern that may be affecting your well-being. You may also find these resources helpful:
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline — Trained advocates are available to take your calls through this toll free, 24/7 hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Live chat services are also available.
  • Safety Planning in Abusive Relationships — Experts recommend that victims of domestic abuse create a safety plan to prevent future harm to themselves or their children. Get tips for creating your own plan today.

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  1. Thank you Noelle for not being silent. Change is in the courage to not be content with what is even when we don't know what's next.

  2. Thank you, Noelle, for telling your story. May you hear and find strength in response. Kent

  3. Me too. I can identify and relate to many parts of your story Noelle. I fled with my two sons 13 years ago from an abusive marriage that spanned over 12 years. I'm a better person but different, different than I would have been had I not experienced and endured IPV. I've been serving on the Board of Directors at the Northwoods Battered Women's Shelter in Bemidji for a couple of years, it helps me to help others. I am grateful for your courage.

    1. Thank you Jennifer. It's important for strong women like yourself, and Betsy and Stephanie, to speak out because it shows that this can happen to anyone.

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  5. Me too Noelle. Breaking your silence gives me strength.

  6. Thank you all for your comments, including those who contacted me privately. I feel fortunate to find support and solidarity from colleagues. I also want to acknowledge my privilege in being able to converse in this way, when many survivors do not have that luxury.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story, Noelle.

  8. Your bravery is amazing. I want you to know that I'm here for you. The little that I saw of you in Vienna made me fall in love with you! You have a wonderful spirit. I dealt with my sexual abuse years ago, personally. I went to counseling and understood what had happened to me. I say this to you, because I too, for the first time, spoke about it publicly last week. I said it out loud at a domestic violence awareness event. I didn't realize that I was still holding on to some hurt. The local newspaper exploited my story and published it without asking my permission. It's out there again and I'm dealing with that. Thank you for sharing your story and for being the most beautiful person from the inside out!!! #OutOfTheDarknessIntoTheLight

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Orlando my friend, and for speaking up publicly. Men face even more stigma around this issue than women, I believe. I commend your courage!

  9. Me too Noelle. Thank you for sharing your story and leading the way.

  10. Noelle - You've been on my mind & in my heart since I read your facebook post. My heart breaks for all you've gone through in silence and while trying to break the silence and protect yourself and your child. I'm sorry that I was not aware and did not help in those dark days. I'm so please that others were and you let them in. I've been fighting a reckless, self-protecting system for years and this year it's come back to really bite down on me and my family. But our fighting continues and our goal is to punch through the immovable institutional silencing as you describe and shine a bright light on how this state victimizes families and children. Thank you for shining your light! Erin Meier

  11. Thanks for your courage and honesty Noelle.


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