Karla Altmayer was a third-year law student in 2012, helping Illinois farmworkers experiencing gender-based violence.
Sheerine Alemzadeh was a lawyer back then, and, like Altmeyer, was trying to help low-income workers dealing with sexual violence in the workplace.
The two met at an anti-violence conference that year and bonded over a shared interest in finding a new approach to helping sexual violence survivors.
One of Altmayer’s clients had been sexually assaulted by her supervisor for years but did not file charges or go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission out of a sense of shame. Both Altmayer and Alemzadeh saw this pattern among survivors.
For four years, Altmayer and Alemzadeh worked together on nights and weekends to come up with a new approach to tackling sexual violence. Eventually, they realized the only way to properly address the issue was full-time. So in 2016, they quit their jobs as attorneys to start Healing to Action.
They wanted to empower survivors of gender-based violence, like that woman Altmayer had worked with.
“She actually blamed herself and was really afraid of what her daughters would think about her,” said Altmayer. “It was [because of] that barrier of shame and the stigma that survivors were experiencing that we began to think about how could we address that issue.”
Their work with Healing to Action has now been recognized by the Fund for New Leadership, which recently announced Altmayer and Alemzadeh are part of the fund’s first group of fellows. In all, 14 fellows were chosen; according to the Fund for New Leadership’s website, they all lead “early-stage start-up organizations doing innovative, not-for-profit work to solve difficult problems.”
The honor means Healing to Action will receive three annual grants of $75,000. The grants, according to the fund’s website, will help fellows “take their work to the next level.”
Since its founding, Healing to Action has helped turn 30 sexual assault survivors into community leaders. They call them “survivor-leaders,” and they now spearhead projects like “SexEd Works,” which hopes to bring sexual assault awareness and education to Chicago Public Schools.
“They [survivors] wanted more than just to seek justice for themselves but to actually create a better future for everyone in their communities,” said Alemzadeh. “We saw this untapped leadership potential.”
Alemzadeh and Altmeyer hope to use the grant money from the Fund for New Leadership to hire another organizer focused on “SexEd Works.”
The “survivor-leaders” are meeting with Chicago Public Schools board members to advocate for comprehensive sex education before CPS’ August’s budget meeting.
“They [survivor-leaders] found out that their kids knew nothing about consent or didn’t know what gender-based violence was,” Altmayer said. “They want to stop the cycle of violence and make sure that all CPS kids have equitable to comprehensive sexual education.”
Simon Greer, managing director of the Fund for New Leadership, said Healing to Action stood out for its talented co-directors and unique approach to tackling a difficult issue.
The organization “brought the concept of survivors becoming leaders and that people who’ve gone through this experience would be the wisest, smartest and most strategic about how to transform our solution set,” said Greer.
“We can be in their corner and help them to be successful as they pivot, grow, expand and develop the survivor leaders,” Greer said. “So we really believe we’ll be helping transform the way society relates to this issue.”
Before the pandemic, Healing to Action had offices in Humboldt Park. They now work remotely, with virtual meetings twice a month. “Survivor leaders” continue to meet in smaller groups to work on “SexEd Works.”
“These survivors are experts at the table, as opposed to seeing survivors as victims,” Altmayer said. “I think that the concept of ‘survivor-leaders’ has really changed the way how people see who can be organized in the community and the power that people have.”