On Monday night, Grace Brown, the founder of Project Unbreakable, spoke to a full crowd in Paresky Auditorium about her experiences and the inspiration for her now-viral Tumblr blog. The Record also sat down with Brown on Monday afternoon to talk specifically about the project and its beginnings.
Project Unbreakable is a Tumblr blog created by Brown in October of 2011, according to the site. The Tumblr features Brown’s photographs of survivors of sexual assault holding a poster on which is written a quotation from their attacker. Brown, a photography major at NYU who is currently taking a year off to work exclusively on Project Unbreakable, was on campus on Monday to photograph students at the College for inclusion on the Tumblr and to speak to the College as a whole. The event was sponsored and organized by the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN).
RASAN co-coordinator Marissa Thiel ’13 was instrumental in bringing Project Unbreakable to campus after hearing about the Tumblr blog last year. “We decided to bring Brown to campus because we found her project to be incredibly powerful,” Thiel said. “Brown is a young woman with great drive and commitment to achieving her dream, namely combating sexual assault. For these reasons, she seemed like a great choice for an education- and awareness-driven fall event for RASAN to host.”
Brown’s interest in sexual assault activism began in high school, when she realized that “we’re all surrounded by survivors of sexual assault” and then “made it [her] mission” to combat rape and sexual assault and to inform the people around her about its effects on individuals and its prevalence in society.
Brown, whose interest in photography was also sparked in high school during a project in which she took a photo a day for a year, only began working on Project Unbreakable over the past year. In October of 2011, during the now-infamous snowstorm that rocked the Northeast, a friend of Brown’s confided in her a powerful story about her own sexual assault. Brown went to bed that night “losing [her] faith in humanity,” but “woke up with the idea for Project Unbreakable.”
Brown took the first two photographs in November before starting to get the word out about her initiative. “I put those two photos on the Internet,” Brown said. “I reached out to a feminist. Her name is Jessica Valenti – I’d photographed her for a different project in September [of 2011], and you know, I just wanted to get her perspective and what she thought, if she had any advice, and she wound up really loving the project.”
Valenti’s endorsement quickly got the word out about Brown’s work. After Valenti featured Project Unbreakable on her own blog, Brown’s Tumblr got more and more traffic, and Brown soon began receiving e-mails from survivors all over the country thanking her for undertaking the project. The project’s popularity only grew from there: Colleges and universities around the country began contacting Brown in December asking her to travel to their campuses to talk about and further her work, a development which got Brown thinking about the possibility of working on Project Unbreakable full-time.
“I started just getting e-mails from colleges asking if I would come,” she said. “I got my first email back in December … to do an event in April, last April, and I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I could do this.’ It didn’t cross my mind that this was a possibility.” In January, TIME named Project Unbreakable one of the top 30 Tumblr blogs to follow.
By last spring, Brown realized that she couldn’t be both a full-time student and steward Project Unbreakable, so she decided to take a year off to focus on the project. “It was a no-brainer,” she said. “I have the rest of my life to go back to school, might as well just take a year off and do what I can.” The increased visibility and popularity of Project Unbreakable also forced Brown to bring assistants on to what was formerly an individual project: A total of five young women between the ages of 19 and 21 now make up the Project Unbreakable team.
Brown expressed that her experience with Project Unbreakable has taught her that all young people with an impactful idea should feel empowered to act. “Do it. Just do it,” she said. “Seriously, stop talking about it and just do it … I have people in my life that are constantly talking about, ‘I’m going to do this,’ ‘I’m going to do that,’ and they never actually do it, and it drives me crazy! And it’s hard, but you have to do it. If it’s in your mind and it’s something that you really want to do, just go.”
Brown’s goals with Project Unbreakable include providing education about and raising awareness around sexual assault. Through the project, Brown said she has also “discovered a new way of healing,” particularly for those who have been judged or stigmatized after being assaulted.
Amidst a two-and-a-half-month, 19-city photo tour, Brown is also planning photo days in London and Paris to take place before the end of the year and is currently beginning the process of working on a book on her experiences with Project Unbreakable.
While she acknowledged that many people may view Project Unbreakable as upsetting, Brown explained that she no longer sees it that way. “Project Unbreakable is a symbol of hope,” she said to the crowd on Monday evening. “A hope that one day, the project won’t be necessary.”
Project Unbreakable’s presence on campus will potentially continue: RASAN is looking into the possibility of planning a photo gallery of the photographs Brown took of students at the College while on campus, though Thiel emphasized that RASAN wanted to speak with those photographed before making any final decisions about the gallery.
With regards to the future of her fledgling project more broadly, Brown is keeping her options open, though she is hoping to be able to continue the project after completing her education. “I’m taking it day by day, letting whatever happens happen,” she said.