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Surviving and Thriving: Reading and Writing Practices of Survivor Advocates

by Megan Schoettler, PhD

Megan Schoettler, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the English Department at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches professional and technical writing. Her research investigates the rhetorical and literacy practices of feminist activists, with emphasis on rape crisis organizations and survivor advocates. She has been published in numerous books and academic journals, including Computers and Composition and Communication Design Quarterly.

Sexual assault survivor advocates are real-life super heroes, who take on the selfless and challenging tasks of supporting survivors through whatever they need– care, healing, justice, community, protection, and more. However, organizations such as the SOAR Collective are bringing more attention to unsustainable burnout and high turnover rates in the anti-violence community. Advocates need more to keep surviving and thriving in their vital work. 

I was trained as a survivor advocate at the Midwest Rape Crisis Organization (MRCO)*, an organization that serves survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. My work as a volunteer led to dissertation research–an ethnographic case study** of feminist rhetorics and advocacy at MRCO. An important finding of my research is that reading and writing practices are vital tools for advocates to thrive among the challenges of serving survivors.  

Survivor advocates in my research study use transformative reading and writing literacies to not only learn how to advocate for others but also how to find resilience while experiencing vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.  As anti-violence organizations consider how to support advocates and reduce turnover rates, reading and writing are two valuable tools to enhance community care. 

Advocate Reading Practices

At MRCO, reading is a critical practice for advocates learning to serve survivors and to navigate the affective, or emotional, challenges of their work. 

In their 40-hour training, new advocates read memoirs and testimonies of survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking, such as Crystal Ponti’s “What It's Actually Like to Be Stalked by Joe” and survivor stories in In Her Shoes, an activity designed by Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This interactive lesson is completed by small groups of advocates who work through the stories of diverse people who experienced domestic violence, making choices that lead them to diverging storylines.

In my research study, new advocates Fiona, Margaret, Jack, and Maria all reflected upon how In Her Shoes helped them to understand the complex decision-making of survivors. Fiona shared that the activity showed her how it really takes “seven times before they leave,” referring to the often-referenced statistic that it takes an average of seven attempts before a woman leaves an abuser for good (Berlinger). 

Volunteer and professional advocates at MRCO extend reading practices beyond their training, making time to read as a way to enhance their practice as well as navigate vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.

Experienced advocates such as Kelly described the wide range of media and books they read, including memoirs like Chanel Miller’s Know My Name and collections of essays like Roxanne Gay’s Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Advocates shared that reading about sexual assault and domestic violence helps them not only understand survivors’ diverse experiences, but also the systemic nature of the injustices they fight. 

In addition to reading alone, advocates benefit from reading in community. Experienced professional advocate Alexis described a book club of queer MRCO advocates and friends who alternate between “fun” readings and works dedicated to anti-violence, trauma stewardship, and unjust incarceration, such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Alexis explained the special, restorative bond of reading books together, and how this literacy supports their relationships. The informal book club builds “camaraderie” of community care while helping advocates access tools to self-advocate and educate themselves.

Advocate Writing Practices

Similarly to reading practices, new and experienced advocates at MRCO write to better understand their work and to process vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Many scholars have already investigated the healing potentials and results of writing, including how students use classroom writing opportunities to work through emotions and trauma (Batzer; Belli).

Every week in training, advocates responded to writing prompts to attune with the emotional experiences of survivors and prepare for the emotional challenges of advocacy. Penny, the Volunteer Director, was encouraged by new advocate writing, because it showed how they were deeply engaging with concepts and asking important questions. 

Through the writing prompts, new advocates processed experiences of survivors and hypothetical advocacy situations that involved complex emotional decisions. Penny asked advocates to “think through how you respond, internally and externally.” Penny believes that many volunteers are not aware of the emotional challenges of advocacy when they sign up to volunteer, and it is her responsibility to help advocates prepare themselves with coping strategies for the affective complications of advocacy. 

Outside of training, writing is an important literacy practice for sustaining advocates, and many advocates keep a journal to process their experiences. Professional advocate Jennifer explained that journaling helps her to externalize her experience in the world in terms of inequality through a feminist lens. She explained that writing has helped her see her own privileges as well as how patriarchal systems, institutions, and inequalities of power have negatively affected her. Recognizing this through personal writing “has helped give me the language to talk about it a little more.”

In the research study, advocates expressed the desire for even more opportunities to write together. Kelly suggested that MRCO should host a “journaling circle where we have prompts, write, come together, and discuss. That can be helpful.” While MRCO already includes writing activities in training, it is evident that there is room for MRCO to sponsor even more opportunities for advocates to process through writing.

As anti-violence organizations consider how to address problems including burnout, high turnover rates, and navigating vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, it can be helpful to evaluate how transformative literacies of reading and writing are built into training and community care. Organization leaders can ask themselves:

  • How are we encouraging and supporting advocates’ reading and writing practices?

  • When and how are advocates reading and writing to learn about and process advocacy experiences?

  • Are we giving professional advocates paid time to write and read? 

  • How can reading and writing become a more meaningful part of our community care?

To learn more about Megan Schoettler’s research, you can check out publications listed on her faculty webpage

*“MRCO” and participant names in this blog post are pseudonyms.

**For this IRB-approved ethnographic case study, I observed new advocate training, conducted ten interviews with MRCO staff and experienced advocates, collected and analyzed public writing and training materials, and surveyed 36 active volunteers.



Batzer, Benjamin. "Healing Classrooms: Therapeutic Possibilities in Academic Writing." Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016.

Belli, Jill. “Why Well-being, Why Now?: Tracing an Alternate Genealogy of Emotion in Composition.” Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016.

Berlinger, June Sheehan. "Why Don't You Just Leave Him?" Nursing, vol. 28, no. 4, 1998, pp. 34-39.


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