The Importance of Personal Advocacy

Daphne Pellegrino joined RAINN in 2020 as the policy and grassroots coordinator and later became the policy and grassroots manager. She sat down with RAINNews’ Sierra Scott to talk about RAINN’s federal policy goals over the coming year.

What brought you to RAINN as the Policy and Grassroots Coordinator?

I joined RAINN in October 2020 after working for a little over two years doing advocacy for an international press freedom watchdog called Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The work I was doing there was focused on journalists' safety, ending impunity for crimes against journalists, and promoting a diverse, independent media environment, both domestically and abroad. For me, the work that mattered the most was with journalists who were formerly imprisoned for reporting and with the families of journalists who had been killed in the course of their work, including the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, American journalist Chris Allen, and Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. When I decided I was ready for a career shift, I knew I wanted to continue working on behalf of survivors and victims and I wanted to focus primarily on domestic policy. I've always been passionate about gender equity and appalled by the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our culture. This position with RAINN ended up being a perfect fit.

What are your personal goals for the next year?

In my new capacity as policy and grassroots manager, I am very eager to continue learning about the ins and outs of the federal and state legislative processes and to work with the rest of our team to pass legislation. It is really important to us that survivors’ voices and needs are at the center of our policy efforts, so I am developing grassroots advocacy campaigns that involve greater engagement with survivors’ to help create the policy change we’re hoping to see. I’m also hoping to work with RAINN’s research department to ensure that our policy priorities are informed by the latest data and the needs of survivors. Every day at RAINN is a learning experience and I’m curious to see where the coming year takes me.

What bills are your team currently working on?

This is a busy time of year for the policy team as Congress wraps up its work before the end of December and state legislatures are preparing for the 2022 sessions, which typically begin in January. At the federal level, we’re working on several bills that address child sexual exploitation and abuse and access to health care for survivors, among other things. There’s a serious gap in public knowledge of the extent of this issue in the United States right now—we’re talking about thousands of unidentified children seen online across the country being sexually abused who have yet to be rescued—and we’re trying to elevate this crisis to the level of attention it deserves at the federal level. The Child RESCUE Act, which was reintroduced in November by Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Ben Cline, does just that by creating a U.S. Working Group on Children in Imminent Danger to assess the scope of this crisis and the resources necessary to solve it and provide a top-down directive to law enforcement officials in the field on how to prioritize the universe of suspects and victims in order to save these children.

We’re also working on a federal bill to increase access to sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) across the nation, especially in rural and tribal areas that currently have very little access. SANEs provide critical care in a trauma-informed manner to survivors after a sexual assault, including STI and pregnancy tests, medical exams to treat injuries, and forensic exams (also called rape kits) to collect DNA evidence of the assault. But right now, less than a quarter of American hospitals have SANEs on staff. It’s a dire situation for many survivors. For example, in some parts of Alaska, survivors would have to take two airplanes and travel 15 hours to see a SANE. So this bill would help fix this problem by providing salaries and funding to hire and train SANEs, especially for those underserved areas.

In the states, we’re working with partners on the ground to pass legislation that will improve the response to sexual violence across multiple systems, including among law enforcement, in the courts, and in healthcare. We’re working with some incredible lawmakers in Florida who just filed legislation to revise the definition of “mentally incapacitated” in the state’s sexual battery statute. Right now, that statute defines sexual assault of someone who is mentally incapacitated as someone who became unable to consent due to the influence of an intoxicating substance that was administered to them without their consent. That means that anyone who sexually assaults someone who voluntarily consumed an intoxicating substance and became incapacitated is unable to be prosecuted under Florida law. It’s victim-blaming language written in the criminal code, and it’s a problem in states across the country. We’ll also be lobbying to pass bills to eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault to ensure survivors can pursue accountability for crimes committed against them when they are ready, regardless of how many years have passed.

Why is giving important, and what does it mean when people come together to contribute to a cause that matters?

Giving can mean so many things—giving time, resources, skills, financial support. I always think about giving, generosity, and abundance in the winter—a time of year that can be really cold and dark, kind of the opposite of abundance. It can be such a hard time of year, including for many survivors. If you're someone who has relative means or financial stability, this is a great time to practice giving. Donating is a great way to give back to a community, help create change, or ensure people have access to the care or resources they need. At RAINN, that means contributing to ensure the hotline is staffed, supporting our policy work, helping educate the public about sexual violence, and so much more. And there is so much more power when people come together to contribute to a mission that matters.

Giving can also be the time we give to take action for causes that are important to us. At RAINN, we’re really dedicated to creating ways for people to take political action on behalf of our legislation, even if you are relatively new to advocacy. Sometimes, all it takes is hitting “Send” on an email to your elected officials to help make a difference. If you would like to take political action with RAINN, it’s easy: Subscribe to our alerts and watch out for emails asking you to take action on issues important to you and your communities. We’d be lucky to have you by our side.

What is your message to survivors?

Be gentle with yourself.

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