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Miriam Joelson runs on hope to help survivors in Missouri


Miriam Joelson is quick to admit she’s a relatively new Missourian, but she’s laser-focused on enacting change in her new home state. And Gov. Mike Parson’s recent signing of legislation adding sweeping protections for sexual assault survivors is proof she’s already making a difference.

Joelson, 32, is the Missouri state organizer for Rise, a nonprofit advocating for civil rights protections for sexual assault survivors nationwide.

She was raised in Switzerland, but it was in the northeast of the U.S. where she learned firsthand just how difficult reporting a sexual assault can be. She was raped in 2007 and 2008 in Pennsylvania and Massachusets, she said, and reported the assault to Massachusets police in 2016. 

Although her case was not prosecuted, Joelson sought a copy of the police report, hoping to have that tangible proof of her testimony in case other women would someday come forward as well. Instead, her request was denied, and she learned it would be “purged from the system.” 

Joelson had heard about Amanda Nguyen, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who founded Rise, and reached out to seek her guidance. At the time, Joelson had just moved to St. Louis to attend the Brown School at Washington University — where she now works full-time — but she joined the Rise team almost immediately after speaking to Nguyen. She had a new mission: to bring the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights to Missouri. 

In her role, Joelson has met with a bevy of legislators as well as former Attorney General Josh Hawley to advocate for a Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights — a component included in the recently-signed SB 569. 

The bill also made changes to Missouri’s rape kit testing process and created a statewide telehealth system to increase access to rape kits.

“The combination of these three bills just give such comprehensive rights to sexual assault survivors in Missouri really in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Joelson told The Missouri Times in an interview. 

“Especially in these times, it can be so easy to feel hopeless about our capacity to make change but doing this work really makes me feel that it is possible, and I hope that the bill signing shows that there is reason to hope and certainly always reason to fight for what’s right.” 

Joelson’s work is not done. Now, she’s focused on Rise’s Survivor Safe Haven Initiative, an effort born out of the COVID-19 pandemic. With most states or local municipalities enacting some sort of movement restriction policy during the global health crisis, reports of domestic and sexual violence skyrocketed. 

The initiative provides resources — such as flyers or information — to grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses to provide aid to victims. One flyer encourages those in need to say the phrase “Rise Up 19” to a cashier who will then contact RAINN, the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the U.S. 

Joelson noted perpetrators can track or have access to a victim’s phone, making it unsafe for him or her to call RAINN’s hotline themselves. 

There hasn’t been a big push to implement the Safe Haven Initiative in Missouri yet, but that’s coming in the next week or so, a Rise spokesperson said. 

“Sadly, sexual and domestic violence won’t be eradicated once the virus has been defeated, and that’s why we’re working to expand this program for long term implementation,” Joelson said. “We’re starting to work with state governments to find out if they have programs like the Survivors Safe Haven already in place and how we can help expand them. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure survivors have the resources they need longterm.” 

Borrowing a quote from Nguyen, Joelson said “hope is contagious,” and it’s what keeps her going in her line of work. 

“There’s a proof point that we can make change,” she said. “We’ve already made change in so many states, and now we’ve made this change in Missouri. There’s no reason not to keep fighting.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.