…I have a good friend of mine that I met about a year ago. She came to an event that I held at my church and came because it revolves around sexual violence. She disclosed to me after the event was over that she too had been a victim of assault. We became friends after that evening. As time went on, she began opening up to other about her story. I reached out to her to see if she was interesting in writing her story out for a book I was working on. She said she would and she was able to write everything out. After she sent me her story, I began to put together a fundraiser that would feature speakers sharing their own story. I asked her to speak. I reminded her that there was no pressure and if she wasn’t ready, I totally understood because I too have been in that situation. She agreed and she shared her story at our event in August. When she was speaking she mentioned that she has had a number of life savers in her life and I was one of them. I was able to help her heal from something she only opened up to a select few. She is one of my closest friends and I am truly grateful to have met her. She has inspired me to keep pushing for change.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristine Irwin of Voices of Hope. Kristine is a Wife, Mother, and Advocate for Ending Sexual Violence and changing our culture. In 2015, Kristine began an organization called Voices of Hope(VOH). VOH’s mission is to change our culture one voice at a time through educating on sexual violence and teaching others to unveil their voice by sharing their story of overcoming adversity. Kristine was nominated and one of Pittsburgh’s 40 under 40 class of 2016. In 2018, she released her first book, Voices of Hope, where she shares her story of trauma and healing. In the book, her family and friend’s share their story of healing from vicarious trauma as well. She resides is Pittsburgh with her loving and supportive husband and two children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 19, I was raped and left on the side of the road. This traumatic experience affected not only me but my family and friends. It took me 10 years to realize how much it had affected my community because I used that first 10 years to try to heal and learn who I was after the rape. One way I learned to heal was to share my story. I began sharing my story in 2006 through the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network’s Speaker Bureau. I would speak once or twice a year. It wasn’t until my son was born in 2015 that I wanted to be more of an advocate and that is how I developed Voices of Hope, my non-profit.
I also work for a community based mental health organization in the human resource department, along with running my non-profit. Through my work with my job, my non-profit and other areas that I volunteer my time, it all comes down to one thing: helping others. My parents instilled in me at a young age the importance of helping others and if I am able to that with everything I do, I know I am following my dream.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
So I have done many speaking engagements and different campaigns to spread the word on abuse and educate individuals on the topic. I have made mistakes but have learned from them. I have spoken in rooms where only 3 people came out to see me, and while all that may be discouraging, I had an event last week that truly made me realize what I am doing is impacting others.
I had four women share their story of sexual abuse. These four women stood up and bravely told their story of survival. Each story different but it showed me the impact and how Voices of Hope is truly helping others heal.
Can you share a story about a humorous mistake you made when you were first starting your public advocacy? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have to say this is a question that I have thought long and hard on. Because honestly, I don’t have a “funny” mistake. I do believe though I have a mistake that has still to this day sits with me, and that is fear. From day one, I had fear that even getting up in front of a room of people that no one would believe me. That no one care that I was speaking. When I had my first engagement in 2006, individuals came up to me afterwards and hugged me, said they were so sorry I had to go through what I went through, and said, “Me too.” The more speaking engagements I received, the more people came up to me. The more I began to realize that this is so very prevalent in our society and by me sharing my story was actually still helping others.
I still have fear to this day before I walk in a room to share my story that no one will believe me, or someone will know my perpetrator. But every time, I still am able to get up and share my story. I believe it is from the support from my loving family. My husband is a constant reminder to me of why I do what I do and he firmly stands and supports me.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Our goal is to educate the public on sexual violence through my own personal experience. We also have had the community around me that was effected by my rape share their story of vicarious trauma. Knowledge is power, and the more we shed the light on this dark topic, the more we are able to prevent it from happening.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
I have a good friend of mine that I met about a year ago. She came to an event that I held at my church and came because it revolves around sexual violence. She disclosed to me after the event was over that she too had been a victim of assault. We became friends after that evening. As time went on, she began opening up to other about her story. I reached out to her to see if she was interesting in writing her story out for a book I was working on. She said she would and she was able to write everything out. After she sent me her story, I began to put together a fundraiser that would feature speakers sharing their own story. I asked her to speak. I reminded her that there was no pressure and if she wasn’t ready, I totally understood because I too have been in that situation. She agreed and she shared her story at our event in August. When she was speaking she mentioned that she has had a number of life savers in her life and I was one of them. I was able to help her heal from something she only opened up to a select few. She is one of my closest friends and I am truly grateful to have met her. She has inspired me to keep pushing for change.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Society can help by changing their views which truly comes down to being educated and shifting our conversation and mindset. Every state defines sexual violence differently. If we had one definition that clearly defines what these are, we then can take better measures to help individuals when they come forward not only as a community but also as a judicial system. By changing the conversation, and mindset, we are leveling the playing field and making investigation fair as they should be.
Another way society can help is to start by believing. We are so quick to judge individuals no matter what they share. However, when someone discloses abuse, it is a serious matter, and they should feel believed and validated.
Lastly, allowing crime victims the same rights as their perpetrator. I know so many individuals that unfortunately did not have the law the on their side or felt they could not report because they would not be believed. By allowing victims to have the same rights, could open up so many doors to changing our culture.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
While the definition of leadership is leading a group of people or an organization, I personally feel that leadership is watching those around you thrive, grow and succeed.
After my most current fundraiser in collaboration with two amazing organizations in my area, Amarah Studio and Boutique and grlpwrpgh, I was truly able to see the impact that Voices of Hope had on survivors of sexual violence. I now want to create an annual forum for individuals that experience this type of abuse to be able to share their story in a safe place. Seeing individuals that you know have experienced something similar to you, and see them thrive is truly an amazing and surreal experience.
Another example is the community I am creating around my Be a Voice this Holiday Season. I have created a community of individuals and am giving them the tools to participate in the campaign and bring it to their region. My hope by giving them the tools they need, they can thrive and make a difference where they are.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Remember to ask for help — I am one that always wants to take everything on, and I mean EVERYTHING. I have tried to do it all and by doing so, other areas slack. I have learned to get better at asking for help when I need it because it takes a village.
Healing isn’t linear — when I developed Voices of Hope, I was in a good place in my healing. While building and creating this platform, I forgot that I could still be triggered and affected until it actually happened. After 4 years, I have learned that there are moments that I need to take a break. And that has truly helped me to be not only successful with Voices but also my healing.
Stigma is still out there — just because I am going out in the world sharing my story and attempting to educate does not mean that everyone is going to want to jump on board. When I have presented campaigns on of the responses I have gotten is: “well that doesn’t happen around here.” And unfortunately IT DOES happen around here and everywhere. I have had to learn how to respond and work through that battle with stigma.
Don’t compare yourself to others — easier said than done, right? I have done this many times and have come to realize this does not help me achieve my dreams. I have an idea for a book that my husband gave me and my initial thought was it had been done before. But truthfully it has not because no one has heard my story or those that will contribute.
Always read the fine print. — Sometimes, you get lost in a dream and I did. I did an advertisement for my self published book that was more expensive than I thought it would be. I didn’t realize how much more expensive it was until about 6 months into it. I now make sure to always read EVERYTHING!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire one movement it would be my Be a Voice campaign which is all about spreading kindness and encouragement either through our site or submitting a holiday card that will be sent to individuals in a domestic violence or sexual violence shelter. The cards can be handmade or store bought but just that they contain some words of kindness and encouragement. This can be in any way one wishes to write it out such as affirmations, poetry or whatever one feels is appropriate. If words of encouragement are submitted on my website at www.voices-of-hope.org, they then will be shared on our site and social media as a reminder to those that follow us that someone is thinking of them. #unveilyourvoice #beavoice
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I define who I am.
This has been so relevant in my life. Having experiencing trauma at the age of 19, the trauma defined me for a long time. I was in a few serious relationships throughout my healing, and those relationships also defined me. I never took time to learn who I was alone. Once I took time to myself, I was able to learn who the new me was. I had to learn who the me was after the rape because I was not the same person. Once I took the time to learn who I was, I learned to love myself more. I then began dating my husband and I was able to give myself to someone else fully. It took me defining who I am to get there. And one of the first steps to get there was unveiling my voice and sharing my story.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oh wow, well Lady Gaga is a big one. She is has been so inspirational in my healing. I saw her in concert 8 times in an 18 month period in 2010 to 2011. This was so helpful in my healing. I had found a hobby and that was making outfits for her shows. I rolled cans in my hair, bedazzled leather jackets and even wore a fake meat dress. Once she shared her story of abuse and I had just started Voices of Hope. I loved her even more. Her music has always been a source for me to get back into a good place should a trigger come up. Her song, “Just Dance” actually became an anthem for me to help me get pumped up prior to a speaking engagement. Because it reminded me of being at her shows, and feeling free. I did not have the label of victim, PTSD, suffers from depression or bulimia written across my forehead. At here shows, I was free. To be able to sit down and talk to her one on one about her own healing would be absolutely amazing.