Upstanders: How Survivor Turned Activist and Abuse Prevention Expert Ashley Bendiksen Is Standing…

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Upstanders: How Survivor Turned Activist and Abuse Prevention Expert Ashley Bendiksen Is Standing Up Against Violence, Bigotry, and Hate

Don’t be silent. Every one of us is a bystander. We witness positive and negative things constantly and make a choice whether to speak up or not. Upstanders can make a difference by speaking up. If you overhear or see something problematic, call it out. This can be as simple as saying, “Hey, stop. That’s not okay,” or asking someone, “Hey, are you alright? What just happened to you isn’t okay.” (This happens all the time with other peoples’ relationships, or even being a bystander to a friend acting in a way that you know isn’t okay).

An upstander is the opposite of a bystander. A bystander is someone who stands by while others are being bullied, maligned, or mistreated. An upstander is someone who stands up to protect and advocate for the victim. We are sadly seeing a surge of hate, both online and in the real world. Many vulnerable minorities feel threatened and under attack. What measures are individuals, communities, and organizations taking to stand up against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate? In this interview series, we are talking to activists, community leaders, and individuals who are Upstanders against hate, to share what they are doing and to inspire others to do the same. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Bendiksen.

Ashley Bendiksen is an acclaimed national speaker, Top Youth Speaker®, and award-winning activist, specializing in domestic violence, teen dating violence, and sexual assault prevention. From schools to first responders, major conferences and corporate audiences, Ashley’s keynotes and presentations educate, empower, and equip audiences with the tools to drive change. Learn more or book Ashley to speak here.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I come from a small coastal town in Massachusetts and was your typical 80s child. I started dance classes young, loved (and still love) 90s hip hop and R&B, grew up with all the Disney love stories, and had a serious crush on at least one of The Backstreet Boys. I was also outgoing, silly, quirky, loved school, and was a very proud big sister — the oldest of three girls. From as early as I can remember, I was an over-achiever and worked hard to excel in everything I did. Then during adolescence, my life took a seriously damaging turn, which is really the origin story of the work I do today.

Can you share a personal story of how you experienced or encountered antisemitism, racism, bigotry, or hate? How did that experience shape your perception and actions moving forward?

I was 14 years old when I first experienced harm, hate, and gender-based violence. My very first boyfriend became sexually, emotionally, and psychologically abusive — and unfortunately, this marked the beginning of a six-year cycle of recurring abusive relationships and sexual assaults by other individuals. It’s a long and complicated story, but essentially, the presence of abuse in my life became normal to me. I believed I just had to accept and deal with it. By age 20, an abusive relationship left me homeless, penniless, a college dropout, and eventually, physically attacked. I escaped through the help of the court system, but felt like I was at rock bottom. I had nothing left. It was at this moment, during some serious reflection, that I finally saw so clearly that I was a victim of abuse. Worse, I realized that I had no idea who I was. I’d sacrificed my life and my goals for so long. I felt fed up, exhausted, and determined all at once, and made a commitment to change my life. One day at a time, I rebuilt the pieces, re-found myself, and also felt called to raise awareness. I began to learn just how prevalent and hidden abuse and assault is. I volunteered at a domestic violence agency, then began speaking publicly, took on leadership roles, and later returned to school and graduated as Valedictorian with a degree in justice studies. I discovered my strengths and a deep purpose: to be a voice, raise awareness, and advocate for justice and change.

Can you describe how you or your organization is helping to stand up against hate? What inspired you to take up this cause?

Today, I am a subject matter expert in domestic violence, teen dating violence, and sexual assault. My full time work is dedicated to driving change. I knew early on that my experience, sadly, wasn’t unique and this inspires everything I do. I speak and travel year-round, educating and training audiences on these topics — from schools and universities, to law enforcement, first responders, workplaces, and the military. Among all these, I’m most passionate about speaking to students. Youth experience abuse at extremely high rates, and it’s also an adverse childhood experience that poses immediate and long-term harm. Through these brave and ongoing conversations, I’ve seen firsthand that prevention, detection, early intervention, and improved response is possible. I also serve on boards for organizations that address domestic and sexual violence, have lobbied for policy change, and co-founded the Blue Hearts Project — a global storytelling platform for survivors to heal and help others through the power of telling their stories.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your work as an Upstander?

This one’s tough! I don’t think I ever really fully knew the impact that I would make on peoples’ lives. When I began this work, I never intended or envisioned myself as being “inspirational.” I just felt a deep calling towards justice. It was never about me. It was about doing what’s right — addressing what’s wrong. I’m still taken by surprise when people say how much I’ve helped or inspired them. I’m humbled and immensely grateful to hear this, especially because for so long, I truly believed (and had been brainwashed) into thinking I had nothing to offer the world.

Could you share an inspiring story that demonstrates the impact your efforts have had on an individual or community?

Speaking full time, there are just so many stories. I receive disclosures after every speech. Two really stand out to me. The first was a student who approached me after a presentation, thanked and hugged me with tears in her eyes. Months later, she reached out to me online to share that she finally told someone about the abuse she experienced by an older male relative. Not only was she in counseling, but he was being prosecuted by the District Attorney. So many victims feel alone, but this is what solidarity and validation do. The second story that stands out was the first time an audience member ever came up and self-identified as someone who might be abusive. They asked for resources and guidance for help. I’ve always tried to cater my remarks to help those who may abuse as well, and these disclosures now happen more frequently. It gives me hope that what I’m doing can lead to even bigger foundational, lasting, potentially generational change.

In your opinion, why do you think there has been such a surge of sexism, violence, bigotry, & hate, recently?

The issues I address are nothing new. Women have always faced hatred, violence, bigotry, inequity, oppression, and injustice. However, there are definitely new factors at play in today’s modern world. Women who use their voices and express injustice are often met with outward levels of criticism and public shaming. For those who speak up and disclose assault or abuse, they are met by armies of individuals online that victim blame, ridicule, post hateful comments, deny women’s stories, or worse, harass and threaten their lives. The internet gives more people a voice — those who promote feminism as undesirable, or believe in and promote traditional, flawed gender roles. If anything, any perceived “surge” is due to the fact that we all have a platform — both to share and to hate. This open discourse can promote good, but also can pose significant and persistent harm.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, we need to simply talk about the issue. Throughout history, we can see the impact of major public health awareness campaigns, e.g. friends don’t let friends drive drunk, or smoking causes cancer. As a society, in our communities, and at the legislative/civic level, we need to raise awareness of the high prevalence of abuse as well as prioritize prevention and education initiatives. This includes requiring healthy relationship education in schools.

Second, we need to focus efforts on addressing the social determinants of health that are related to abuse. These are deeper contributing factors such as environment, poverty, food and housing insecurity, access to healthcare, etc. Presently, there are individual agencies centering this approach in their prevention work, helping to reduce incidents of violence while also improving quality of health and safety within communities.

Third, we need to be as inclusive as possible when discussing, addressing, and responding to abuse. Historically, the myth has been that domestic violence victimizes women. However, while women are disproportionately affected, abuse also happens to men, gender nonbinary individuals, the LGBTQIA+ community, transgender individuals, etc. Many agencies provide services to women-only, or they serve all, yet “women” is in their name. Other trends have shown that most services cater to cisgender white females, not taking race, racial inequities, systemic barriers, or intersectionality into account. For example, what is the starting point for a survivor who is male… gay… and black? We need to recognize all individuals as potential victims or offenders, restructure our services to support every victim, and most importantly, directly engage survivors of diverse backgrounds in our advocacy and decision-making.

What are your “5 Things Everyone Can Do To Be An Upstander”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Don’t be silent. Every one of us is a bystander. We witness positive and negative things constantly and make a choice whether to speak up or not. Upstanders can make a difference by speaking up. If you overhear or see something problematic, call it out. This can be as simple as saying, “Hey, stop. That’s not okay,” or asking someone, “Hey, are you alright? What just happened to you isn’t okay.” (This happens all the time with other peoples’ relationships, or even being a bystander to a friend acting in a way that you know isn’t okay).

2 . Do something. Let’s face it — not all of us are great at speaking up. Some of us are just conflict-averse and want to avoid communication at all costs. Still, you can do something. Perhaps you observe harm occurring and find someone else to intervene that is more vocal or holds a position of authority. You can also get creative to prevent harm. For example, let’s say your friend’s partner is berating them, break up the situation by asking them to go find the bathroom with you, help you find your keys, go grab a bite, etc.

3 . Educate yourself. Part of being an upstander is being educated and knowledgeable about the struggles of others and the problems in our world, and challenging our own biases, too. Knowledge leads to greater empathy, which then leads to a greater sense of moral responsibility to act. By learning from survivors, for example, we can better understand the complexities of abuse, the barriers to leaving, and why it’s important that we do something when we see it. We can also relate to others better when we hear their stories, barriers, and learn as much as we can.

4 . Join a larger movement. Being an upstander also means contributing towards tangible change. This can include volunteering, participating in rallies and awareness campaigns, supporting relevant nonprofits, or even joining a board of directors, coalition, or special task force. Not only can you make (and begin to see) a real impact by participating firsthand, but you also join a community of individuals with a passion for change. It’s inspiring and motivating, supports innovation, and builds real momentum. It’s also one way that you can serve as an ally for marginalized communities. This is as simple as looking up local or state nonprofit organizations, community groups, or coalitions, sending an email, and asking how you can help.

5 . Support systemic change. It’s important that we exercise our right to vote and ensure that we align our votes with the values we seek. This means supporting candidates and policies that recognize and promote systemic change, while also calling out individuals and policies that don’t. We can also use our voices to challenge discrimination, hold institutions accountable, and speak out against policies and practices that perpetuate inequity and harm. Additionally, anyone can get involved in policy reform — joining advocacy efforts, lobbying for policy change, or testifying before legislators. All of this is another function of being a bystander, and it’s instrumental in the effort towards change.

How do you handle the emotional toll that comes with being an Upstander?

Whether I’m speaking and sharing my story, supporting survivors, or intervening in real life situations, I do a really good job at remembering the reason for it all in the first place. I remind myself of the big vision, the mission, the ‘why’, and this keeps me feeling strong and motivated. On a more practical level, it’s critical to prioritize your own healing first. As a speaker, I’ve already done my own inner work, allowing me to now use my story as a teaching tool and be even more emotionally strong for others. It’s also important to be intentional about self-care and taking breaks. Off stage, people reach out and share their trauma. I see red flags everywhere. I consume content on these topics nonstop. This is why I create balance. I take time for play, adventure, creativity, and fun. It’s in these breaks that I can recharge and stay emotionally light.

If you were in charge of the major social media companies, what would you do to address the hate on the platforms? Could you share specific strategies or policies that you believe would be effective in addressing hate on social media platforms?

Personally, I’d begin with some of the issues that I see frequently causing harm. Many of the major sites have come under fire in recent years for having absurdly high numbers of minors (children) as users, despite having “age policies.” We need to enforce age limits and strictly monitor this for any loopholes. Additionally, we’ve seen the severe, and sometimes tragic, damage that algorithms can cause to both youth and users of all ages. These must be built intelligently to suggest helpful comment, but flag and stop suggesting harmful comment, e.g., diet content spiraling into accounts that glorify and promote eating disorders. Research has also found that a huge majority of child sexual abuse imagery is being discussed, shared, traded, and even stored on social media sites in things like private message threads and community groups. Social media companies must adopt and uphold that there is no absolute right to user privacy. These sites are mere privileges, a toybox of communication tools in our modern-day, technologically advanced life. Using them however we want is not some inalienable right. I’d also want to empower users to have a voice, too — as upstanders — encouraging them to report concerns and then, see action from it.

How would you answer someone who says: “Hate speech is permitted under the US Constitution. Why are you so worried about permitted, and legal speech?”

I earned my degree in justice studies and one of my favorite classes was on Civil Liberties. We studied tons of Constitutional rights cases. Over the years, our courts have come up with all kinds of tests, continually emphasizing that there are limitations to permitted “hate speech” — namely, the potential to incite violence, threaten, or inflict serious harm. To be honest, I don’t know what kind of hate speech doesn’t inherently include these factors; this is what makes it hate speech. It’s important that we continue to define hate speech and convey the serious short and long-term damage it poses. Allowing it is worrisome because words can influence. Words, on a large platform, can influence many. It’s even more worrisome you have impressionable young people on the receiving end. These words breed hatred and bigotry. It’s where violence erupts and cycles persist. Recently, I was giving a speech. A student heard another student making comments that domestic violence is okay. The student knew this was wrong and that it went against their school’s values, so they reported them. This same dynamic should play out everywhere — hate speech doesn’t support the ideals of a safe and just world. It does the opposite.

Are you optimistic that we can solve this problem in the United States? Can you please explain what you mean?

I am a perpetual optimist, but also a realist. Do I think we can fully solve it? No. These types of beliefs are generational. Abuse, for example, is learned and becomes deeply embedded into a person’s way of behaving. There are also serious systemic inequities and injustices that will take serious time and effort to undo. Still, I do think we can make a significant impact — a potentially transformational impact if we have enough voices sounding the alarm. As much as harmful beliefs can be easily disseminated today, the same is true for truth and change. I constantly question how I can get more people educated and talking about this. We need critical mass. With volume, we can see major change.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an Upstander but doesn’t know where to start?

I think it starts in our everyday interactions. How we embody the role in our lives matters, and it’s also what determines our credibility when we take that leadership to a larger platform. Anyone can have a virtuous idea, but those foundational personal values need to come first. My recommendation is to look at who you are currently, identify where you’re already an upstander (without the accolades or acknowledgment), see where you show up most humbly in service, and ask yourself: how can I do this in a way that could help serve and support even more people? More tangibly, I’m a huge proponent of volunteerism. For me, this was a huge stepping-stone for skills-building, greater knowledge, networking, and even bigger opportunities in the future. Find a cause to volunteer with, immerse yourself, and let the path unfold.

In what ways can education be leveraged to combat antisemitism, racism, bigotry, and hate?

A huge part of my message is the need for primary prevention — specifically, prevention education. Schools and educational institutions are incredible vehicles for education, character development, and access to resources. Specific to my expertise, healthy relationships, boundaries, and consent are topics we can and should start teaching young. These aren’t just critical for prevention, but help build lifelong skills for healthy relationships, a sense of agency and self-awareness, and empathy for others. This impacts not just intimate relationships, but friendships, peer, family, work, and community relationships. No matter the topic, if we can incorporate anti-hate messages into our educational curricula, young and year after year, we can foster those core values of kindness, inclusivity, and acceptance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In the months following my attack as I was rebuilding my life, I remember stumbling across a quote that said, “The greatest revenge is massive success.” I was angry, but also hungry, and this quote seemed to effortlessly summarize my disposition. I was determined to break the cycle that I had been in, and most importantly, succeed despite it all. I didn’t want anyone to hear about me, only to hear that I was still struggling. I wanted the exact opposite. With each passing day, I repeated that quote to myself, and it supported me as I learned to thrive and not let the abuse define the rest of my life.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If there’s any one thing I’ve learned in my work, it’s that solidarity can be life-changing. We need to have real conversations about real life issues, especially those we don’t dare to talk about. It’s in these conversations that we validate the experiences of others, including the secrets and hidden pains that many never talk about their entire lives. But talking, sharing our stories, releasing, forgiving, breathing, all of this is what’s required to heal and reclaim what’s true — individually and collectively. The people who most inspire me are those who have bravely dared into this territory. This list could be endless, and I’m sure NONE of them will see it, but here’s a few that deserve naming.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, is a big inspiration to me — not just for her voice and leadership on women’s issues, but the sheer fact that she has dedicated most of her life to change, even starting as a young girl. I’d be honored to learn from her, as well as hear the insights and wisdom she has gained from decades of doing this work. Gloria Steinem, for everything she has done, but particularly for her background in research, journalism, and reporting. Evan Rachel Wood, because I’m a super fan of her as an actor, but even more so since she has bravely and publicly disclosed herself as a survivor. Rachael Denhollander, for being a driving force as the first of hundreds of survivors of Larry Nassar; in interviews, it was she, they said, who gave them strength to also speak up. I’ve shared this story numerous times in my speeches.

And of course, if I had to dream… while it may be a cliché, I’d love to meet Oprah. She was a very early inspiration to me. I always envisioned having my own talk show one day (and still do!) To me, Oprah pioneered the practice of having tough, but life-changing conversations. I’m also deeply inspired by her work to educate and empower girls. I hope to do much of the same in my life — through my work to end domestic and sexual violence, support at-risk teens, and empower survivors. It would be a dream to thank her and draw from her wisdom and mentorship.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Start with my website: You’ll find information on my speaking and training programs, free resources, and more. I’d love to also connect on LinkedIn on Instagram @ashleybendiksen.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your important work!

Upstanders: How Survivor Turned Activist and Abuse Prevention Expert Ashley Bendiksen Is Standing… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.