On October 4, women from across the Bay area will gather for a day of inspiring talks, workshops and breakout sessions. Focus Women’s Conference, now in its third year, seeks to bring professional, personal, and community growth and development to women of all walks of life. The keynote speaker for this year’s event will no doubt leave attendees with a new perspective on resiliency.
In 2002, Elizabeth Smart’s abduction from the bedroom where she slept horrified and captivated the nation. Smart, then age 14, endured nine months of abuse before being rescued. During that time, the hope of being reunited with her family helped her survive. Now, she dedicates her life to advocating for missing persons and victims of sexual assault and advises parents on how to keep children safe.
Smart has testified before Congress, been awarded the Diane Von Furstenberg Award for Inspiration, given a TED Talk, and spoken at such prestigious institutions as Johns Hopkins University and Boston College. “After I was rescued,” she says, “I felt like no one understood what had happened to me. Now I want to speak wherever I can, because I never know who will be in the audience struggling with the effects of an assault, abuse at home or a bad relationship.”
Smart also felt a connection to the mission of Focus Women’s Conference, which was established to encourage, educate and empower women in Mobile. Smart is trying to do on a global level what Focus founder Devin Ford hopes to accomplish locally.
“When I moved back home from California, where I went to college and worked as a photographer for 10 years, I got online to try and find women’s conferences in the area,” says Ford, a Grand Bay native. “I was looking for something similar to what I’d attended in L.A. They were multifaceted and well-rounded. The overarching goals were to encourage women to get involved in their communities, advance in their careers, and to connect with and support one another. The events I found in Mobile were primarily faith-based, so I began working to establish Focus as something different.”
Smart applauds Ford’s efforts. “What people like Devin are doing for women on a grassroots level is an example of how one person can affect a community,” she says. “It’s locally — in our community centers, churches, schools and at home — where we need to address tough issues and, in particular, support victims of sexual abuse.”
The Abused on Trial
Smart believes a cultural shift in the way we treat and react to victims is needed to substantiate real change. “For women to come forward after an assault is scary,” she says. “We feel defenseless, powerless, our characters are put on trial. We fear it could happen again. It can feel equally impossible for men to come forward, since their characters are also scrutinized. The false notion is often that if a male were stronger or more masculine, maybe it would not have happened to him.”
Smart argues that neither of these perceptions are true, and both are unacceptable. Gender, ethnicity, background, socioeconomic status or age should not matter. “Abuse is abuse,” she continues. “Every person — every child — deserves to be safe. We should fight for each one.”
In her writings and speeches, Smart offers commentary on her own healing process following her captivity. Gratitude and perspective are two themes that appear throughout.
“I realize there is so much suffering out there, and I’m thankful for the blessings I have. What I’ve learned and what makes my story different is that I was abused by a stranger. Most people fall victim to someone they know — a family member, friend or neighbor. If my abuser were living in the room next to me, if half of my family believed me and the other half didn’t, that would add an entirely different level of torment to my experience. We tell our children, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ but the reality is the majority of sexual abuse comes from someone the victim knows.”
Forgiveness has also played a large part in Elizabeth’s ability to heal and move forward, and she encourages others to embrace it. “I realized forgiveness was for me, not for the people who hurt me. My captors don’t care if I forgive them, but it will affect my life. Clinging to my anger, however justified, will only prevent me from feeling joy. I needed to love myself enough to let go.”
The Tough Conversations
Parents today are faced with a conundrum: We need to prepare our children for dangers they may face in the world, but at the same time, we want them to stay innocent and free of fear for as long as possible. Smart will offer parents in the Focus audience insight into how they may choose to explore threatening issues in order to keep our most precious ones safe. “I warn listeners at the beginning of my speech that I will broach dark topics, but I feel these are necessary to address,” she says. “The average age of kids taken into human trafficking is between 12 and 14. When I was that age, I didn’t have a clue. It’s terrifying as a parent. I want to shield my children from this, yet I must prepare them. As parents, we need to be open and willing to discuss subjects that make us cringe.”
When asked what she is most passionately working toward now, she mentions a new initiative with the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which she and her father founded in 2011. “Soon my dad and I will introduce Smart Talks — a podcast we hope to then take around the country. We ask the questions: What is rape? What is sexual abuse? How can we identify when a child is in danger? These topics need to be a part of the safety education curriculum we offer our children. There are fire drills in school, what about this? When you consider 1 in 4 girls and 1 and 6 boys will suffer sexual abuse before age 18, it’s astounding!”
Smart’s goal is to help end victimization through prevention, recovery and advocacy. “We all need to be a part of this,” she says.
The 2019 Focus Women’s Conference will take place on October 4 at the Mobile Convention Center. For more information, visit focuswc.com.