By Bryony Jade Ball, co-founder of SLEEC
First Published in Issue 5 of “Lumpen: A Journal for Poor and Working Class Writers”
As survivors of rape and sexual violence from working-class backgrounds, support for our trauma recovery was limited. Access to resources to help healing was minimal and any financial support, including applying for incapacity/disability benefits due to trauma, was complicated, long-winded and incredibly stressful. Any free counselling services had such long waiting lists and the support was both conditional and temporary. The services providing this support were also controlled by the middle class. Building a solid support network and accessing necessary mental health assistance is just not possible for survivors without money. Trying to make ends meet is hard enough, so self-care is not always something that we can easily achieve.
Recovery has somehow become a luxury that only a privileged few can engage in.
Having been let down by the systems in place and having worked within support services ourselves, we saw the absolute necessity for an alternative space for survivors to be able to build resilience and recover from trauma authentically. We set up SLEEC; for survivors of rape and sexual violence to have autonomy, challenge harmful stereotypes, own our healing and claim back our space.
It started as a fund where survivors could take out mini grants or loans for things to help with their healing processes but is now growing to include mutual support, education and consultancy. The fund remains central to our work.
One of the things we found growing up working class and broke is that middle-class people don’t understand how difficult it is to find money to support self-care and healing. Simple things like buying some healthy food, a herbal tincture, a record, a takeaway, some moisturiser, a new pillow or a yoga class are all a complete luxury. But small things like these can have a massive difference to our day or even a whole week and the importance of being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves pleasurable gifts – particularly through trauma – is undervalued.
What people with money often don’t understand is that every penny counts, it isn’t just a saying for us. Finding a spare fiver is impossible when you don’t know how you are going to cover rent and know you have nobody you can borrow from – as people around you are all in similar positions.
Being able to have an extra £5/£10/£15 to buy something small you need, even if it is just phone credit or a magazine, is something that is so important when you suffer mental health issues.
Recovery and healing from trauma are costly and completely unaffordable for people in our position. Even when counselling services, therapists or holistic centres do ‘concessional rates’ it is usually just £5 off the original cost and doesn’t address the issue that finding any money (especially over £10) for anything outside ‘essential living costs’ is extremely difficult. On average a counselling session costs around £50 – £90 a week (alternative therapies can be way more) and concessional rates are rarely below £40. This is simply something many people cannot afford. Yes, it is cheaper but we still don’t have that to spare. This failure to appreciate what affordability is for the working classes is rooted in the skewed perception of wealth inequality of the middle and owning classes. In their ways of analysing what ‘low income’ and ‘real poverty’ means, we are seen to have more expendable income than we do..
The services that are available for free or subsidised are mainly snapped up by the middle classes because they have time to look for and apply for them. They know how to game the systems because they or people like them essentially created them and they know how to use the right language to gain access. Waiting lists for free trauma counselling can be up to 2 years.
If we can manage it we usually have to go through the uncomfortable process of ‘proving’ our poverty to be able to access the concessional rate. Proof can include bank statements, earnings, financial living costs broken down, concession forms and benefit letters. This is uncomfortable and often humiliating as there is immediately a distrust from the support giver around our lack of money. It creates uneven, unhealthy power dynamics from the start, where we are inferior and have to prove our worthiness. It is a forced vulnerability that we should not have to have put up with – particularly when already dealing with trauma.
When applying for financial support such as grants and loans of any kind, we are also subjected to these same painful processes of measuring our worth and finances in order to access even the smallest financial support.
This is why in setting up our fund we were adamant that it was built on trust, solidarity and mutual support rather than charity. Our form to access mini grants and loans only has six questions and only two are actually required: your PayPal account (or if you don’t have PayPal, the PayPal of someone who can receive the money for you) and the amount you’re requesting. The process is based on self-identification and autonomy. We don’t control who accesses the fund, what they do with the money after they receive it or ask for any kind of reporting or feedback. Mini loans are repayable whenever people are able with the understanding that if it is not possible to pay back, that is totally ok and there is no expectation or judgement. We don’t keep data or information on anyone and people are welcome to apply more than once.
At the moment we are only offering tiny grants and loans of up to £15 but we hope to offer larger amounts once we find more sustainable incomes. Unfortunately, major funding sources and sponsorship options are centred around proving impact, evaluating outcomes and controlling how money is used. These systems further oppress working class folk rather than support us. This is why we are independently funded and reject official charity and organisation structures.
When we explain how we operate one of the first things we are always asked is “How do you know people are telling the truth and that it is definitely real survivors applying?”. Again, this shows what immediate distrust people have (particularly privileged people) of those who are asking for help. The underlying thought is, are they worthy and are they deserving? Yes, maybe some people will apply who aren’t ‘survivors’ and might not seem like they ‘need’ the money but we are not here to judge or control who does or doesn’t need support. It is up to individuals to decide for themselves.
We are not a charity; we are a community and a movement – responsibility for distribution is shared by all, not owned by a privileged few.
There is more to this project than just money. The support services that offer free counselling, support groups or various therapies are usually set up by people with middle-class, white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual privilege, a saviour complex and a superior attitude. Even if we jump through all the hoops to access support or resources there are often many layers of problems.
Services are delivered inappropriately, with no real understanding of our experiences or needs.
A new part of our project is the mutual survivors support collective which is a response to the lack of appropriate one-to-one support available for survivors. We link survivors or people who have experienced rape or sexual violence with each other to co-support each other in a way that we choose individually with our co-supporter. We want to dismantle the idea that all care and support should be led or controlled by a superior. We need choices, agency, freedom and trust.
Another problem we have found with charities and support for ‘vulnerable people’ within them, is how privileged people approach giving. Christmas is a great example as many rush to donate things to those who are worse off than them. What is uncomfortable about this – other than the fact the compassion and kindness seems limited to the festive period – is that the actual items people donate are distasteful. They reek of charity. I used to work in a safe house and one Christmas a very wealthy company donated shoeboxes of gifts for the survivors. A couple of days before Christmas I opened them to check what was inside before putting them out. Wrapped up was a biro, a Tesco Value notebook, soap, a toothbrush and hand sanitiser, a £99p hairbrush with the tag still on and a sachet of cheap hot chocolate. I was disgusted. Particularly as many of these gifts were basic cleaning products and the women who were going to receive them were survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking. It was implying they were dirty – hand sanitiser for xmas really? (This was pre-Corona.) What this rich company was actually saying is “This is your worth”. I imagined what presents the people who had wrapped these had bought their families and what their Christmas day might look like. I imagined them patting themselves on the back after they had packed up these shitty gifts that they would never dream of giving to anyone they actually knew.
It’s similar at homeless shelters when rich people donate food parcels of supermarket basic cans and cheap food they would never even feed their pets, while enjoying Waitrose organic range at home themselves. We are supposed to be grateful for what we get, but these kinds of gifts come loaded with supremacy. Unfortunately, this kind of giving is not uncommon.
People with the most oppression and least privileges are used to being given second-rate things. Survivors in safe-houses often get donated awful second-hand clothes (stained, broken, baggy or just grim), badly knitted hats and gloves all in one style – as if we don’t even have taste or need choice because we are at the bottom of the ladder. What people donate says a lot about how they see us.
Not being able to afford to treat yourself is bad enough but when you are given ‘treats’ that are worthless and shitty you feel worthless and shitty. It does nothing for building up self-respect and resilience when you are feeling vulnerable.
When we started SLEEC one of the things we wanted to include beside the fund was real gifts and treats for survivors. Things that can bring pleasure and excitement – because we need this for recovery as well as meeting our basic needs. We very deliberately looked at asking specific businesses to donate the very best. That is what we all deserve. We got things like gift vouchers for award winning hairdressers, festival tickets, a cookery school course, bottomless champagne brunches, a series of resources on sexual pleasure, vouchers for meals and drinks at top restaurants, pole dancing classes, tickets for cinemas, a women’s herbal medicine course, yoga classes and independent film subscriptions. Gifts should be joyful. Something of real value that makes us know our worth!
Recovery from trauma is hard and slow. We need finances to support our basic needs, we need access to counselling, therapeutic support, holistic therapies, knowledge around natural healthcare and we need real treats.
Even when we try to access these things the holistic world is dominated by middle-class, privileged people. Things like healing centres, herbal medicine, natural remedies and self-care support have become lucrative corporate commodities constructed for middle-class, able-bodied, white, cisgender, heterosexual people. This is ironic considering many of these practices and traditions were originally birthed from Black, Indigenous and People of colour, people without money, and outside the capitalist society. Now the most oppressed people can’t afford to be part of this world. When we can find a way in, it is a very uncomfortable space to be in as we feel like outsiders when most of us are not represented.
Because we have been made to feel like we don’t belong in these types of spaces, and because systems of access to healthcare force us to prove our worth repeatedly, many of us now feel undeserving of support. We discovered this early on in our project – it was incredibly difficult for people to feel able to take out mini grants or claim gifts as they don’t feel worthy enough. People we speak to always say “I don’t feel I deserve it” or “Someone else deserves it more than me”. This illustrates just how dangerous the conditions of our healthcare systems are. People have learned to measure their worth and needs in an extremely toxic way. For example, as survivors our worth is often based on being seen to behave in a way that society expects us to (show signs of suffering, trauma and fear) and to do what society thinks we should do (report to the police, accept support that we are offered that might not be right for us) and to visibly appear vulnerable and to be worthy of support.
We are trying to challenge this attitude of unworthiness within our project but are still unlearning it ourselves as it is hard-wired. In the meantime, to make our project more accessible we have created an option where people can nominate each other for a mini grant or gift..
While our project is tiny and still just at the beginning, we are hoping to radically shift the way people understand recovery and healing. Recovery and self-care is a human right and shouldn’t be a luxury. The Radical Resilience Project is about creating open spaces where we unlearn what we have been conditioned to believe that we deserve and what the ‘right’ way to heal is. A space where building resilience is not a privilege but a right.
To access the fund and mutual support or get in touch, go to sleec.net. We are also on instagram @sleec_project. We are independently funded so any financial support literally keeps this project possible – to donate you can use Paypal (email@example.com).