Healing and Helping Others: Meet Jungle Flower

Jungle Flower is a Toronto based poet, photographer, interviewer, and humanitarian. Over the course of her 18 year career in the arts, she has travelled the world and worked with high profile personalities and entertainers—but nothing has impacted her life more than her work as a community organizer. Her humanitarian journey began after she escaped a psychologically abusive relationship at the age of 21. Since then she has sought out ways to add positivity to the world, discovering her purpose in 2012 when she founded Reclaim Your Voice, an organization that curates safe spaces where people who have experienced abuse and sexual violence can share their stories. Overcoming her own paralyzing fear of stage fright to bring awareness to the realities of abuse, Jungle Flower is now a sought after speaker who combines storytelling, spoken word poetry, humour and truth in a way that inspires audiences to boldly reclaim their own voices.

Starts With Youth was recently privileged to speak with Jungle Flower and hear first-hand about her experiences with abuse and her work as an advocate for others struggling.

SWY: If you don’t mind sharing - What is your story with abuse? How have your experiences with it changed your life?

JF: When I was 18 years old, I met someone. I was a photographer at the time and he invited me, via my online booking system, to come to his store and check out merchandise that he wanted photographed. He told me later that he saw me approaching the store and turned to his friend and said “That’s mine.” When he told me that at the time, when I was very young, I took it as a compliment. In hindsight, it’s kind of disturbing, because that’s really what he ended up trying to do: Possess me. For 3 years, I was experiencing psychological abuse at his hands, with incidents of physical violence and sexual violence. The only thing was that I didn’t know that psychological abuse was a thing, so I didn’t know that I was being abused. But on the day that he ended up spitting in my face and slapping me, I definitely recognized that as abuse and that’s when I finally left him for good. I tried to leave him before that, several, several times, but he never let me go. He would ring down my phone or even show up at my home. All of these things are considered stalking, by the way, and that’s something I didn’t know until last year. It was very hard to get away from him, and even when I did leave him after he put his hands on me, again, he still wouldn’t let me go. But by what I consider to be an act of divine intervention, he ended up getting arrested for something unrelated, so I was finally able to put some distance between us.

Following everything, I still didn’t know that I had been abused for 3 years. I thought there was only that one incident of physical violence, and I couldn’t understand why it was taking me so long to move on from the experiences, why I was so affected by them, why I was so emotional, just going through so much inner turmoil. Finally, a year after I escaped, I found the term psychological abuse, and everything, the whole description fit what I went through, and I finally began to understand the depths of my experiences. I went through a very long and arduous healing journey. Some people would say we’re always healing from it, but I would say what it has done with my life is led me to become a more awakened person. It heightened my awareness and consciousness because I am now a way more empathetic person. For me, healing has come from doing work in the community to support others on their healing journeys.

SWY: In 2012, you founded Reclaim Your Voice to create safe spaces for survivors of abuse and sexual violence. How did Reclaim Your Voice come to be? What programs does the organization offer? How can people get involved?

JF: It came to be in 2011. Still going through all that turmoil, I just had a moment when I lifted my head up from my pillow and looked out the window and thought, “How many other people must be feeling the way that I’m feeling in this moment?” In that moment, I decided I wanted to do something to offer them what it was that I was looking for, which is comfort, reassurance, and hope. So, I started a humanitarian street art project called “Random Acts of Beauty,” where I was looking for ways to add positivity to the world. For me, the kindness of strangers that I had randomly encountered had been a game-changer. It had really helped to restore my faith in humanity after going through abuse, so I wanted to provide that experience for someone else as well. So, I was doing all these random acts of kindness, and then decided that I was going to host an event for people who had experienced abuse, because I knew how amazing it had been for me when I had finally opened up to my friends and told them what I had gone through. From that, we did the first event. Even though I didn’t feel good after because that was the first time I ever shared my story publicly, and I also had really bad stage fright at the time, the other people who were in attendance thought it was incredible, and that’s how I knew I had to do it again. So what started as a one time event ended up growing into a whole movement bigger than the original project.

"I just had a moment when I lifted my head up from my pillow and looked out the window and thought, “How many other people must be feeling the way that I’m feeling in this moment?”

In Toronto, Reclaim Your Voice hosts free monthly events where people who have experienced abuse and violence can come and share their stories. We select our speakers in advance (3 speakers per each event) that talk for 15 minutes each, and then there’s spoken word poetry performances on the topic by people who have signed up. We then have creative group exercises and/or an expert who comes in to do a demonstration of the healing modality. For example, for our February event, we had someone come in to play crystal singing bowls. Our monthly events in Toronto are always free, but aside from that, we also offer our services to organizations and post-secondary institutions. We come in to do live-speaking, workshops, and to host Reclaim Your Voice events themselves on campus.

How can people get involved? They can connect with us via our website, reclaimyourvoice.org, Instagram, @reclaimyourvoice, and Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/ryvorg/. They can reach out to us and tell us how they would like to be involved, whether it be through performing poetry, sharing their story, volunteering, or if they are an expert in their field and they want to give a talk or do a demonstration of the healing modality that they focus on.

SWY: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your work with Reclaim Your Voice?

JF: There’s been so, so, so many because I’m someone who really tends to look for the lessons in situations, but the first thing that comes to my mind is the healing power of community. I’m a very introverted person and aside from Reclaim Your Voice, I was never the type to be involved in community. I was never the type to go to workshops or anything like that. I was just always at home working on my art, so I had no idea how powerful it is to be connected to community. When I started Reclaim Your Voice, I was just trying to support others and their healing. I had no idea how much support I, myself, needed and how much I have gained from hearing others share their stories. It’s been really huge and so valuable to be able to connect with other people who share similar experiences and to learn what they have to offer and to heal together.

SWY: If you could say one thing to someone who has been victimized by abuse, what would you say?

JF: I think I would stress that same point and expand on it a little bit. The idea that very often this sort of trauma requires that we do sort of the opposite of what was done to us. The quote that I often share is “You were abused in isolation, you can only heal in a community.” I already spoke about healing and the effects that healthy connections can have when you do find the right community to be involved in. Trauma, abuse, sexual violence, all of that involves a major, massive violation of our boundaries, so it is really important and can definitely have a significant impact on our healing when we also practice setting and enforcing boundaries.

SWY: On the contrary, if you could say one thing to someone who has been a perpetrator of abuse, what would it be?

JF: I’m going to paraphrase two quotes I’ve heard. The first one is from Dr. Brené Brown, and she said something in her Netflix special, something along the lines of “It is a lot easier to cause pain than to feel pain, and when we don’t feel pain and process what we’ve been through, we put our pain on other people.” So, just understanding that a lot of people who were perpetrators of violence were once victimized themselves. Not everybody, and not everyone who has been victimized will be a perpetrator of violence, but a lot of perpetrators do have that experience, so I would just hope to encourage them to seek out the professional support they need to stop contributing that to the world. The world has enough hurt. I would encourage them to be the one to break the cycle.

"The world has enough hurt."

The other person I would like to quote is Terry Crews. I interviewed him a few years ago, and something he said really stuck with me. He said, “Everyone comes to the fork in the road where they say “No, I’m right and that’s that.” And it’s shame that keeps us saying that. Or they say, “I messed up. I was wrong. I’m going to take the steps to correct it.” That fork in the road is a very important place, and it’s so crucial to our own wellbeing, to the wellbeing of the world, that we choose the right path when we do hit that fork in the road.

SWY: What do you think we need to do as a community to better address abuse and protect people from being victimized? How can we better protect children and youth from being victims?

JF: When I started to learn about psychological abuse, and specifically, when I started to open up to my friends about what I’d been through, they all responded with their own stories. Whether it be physical violence, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, I was just shocked at how common it was. It turns out in Canada, 51% of Canadian women have experienced sexual or physical violence, and we don’t even know what the numbers are like for men because they have less space to talk about it. When I found out how common it was, I was just floored that there had been nothing in place to prepare us for this. You always hear about it. It’s one of those things that we don’t think is going to happen to us, but it’s ridiculously common. I felt robbed by the school system for not doing anything. I think we should have more in place, in terms of education. Schools should make it mandatory from the earliest grade possible to talk to students about what inappropriate touching is and what to do. Oprah had a message on her show once that said, “If you are being abused, tell a parent. If you cannot tell a parent, tell a teacher,” and a little girl that was being abused by her step-father, heard that and she went and got the help that she needed. Letting children know in a way that makes sense to them that there are resources available to them, that inappropriate touching is not okay, that they can speak up, and there’s a safe way to do that is so important.

"Letting children know in a way that makes sense to them that there are resources available to them, that inappropriate touching is not okay, that they can speak up, and there’s a safe way to do that is so important."

Also, even as we grow, something to help the general public know what healing looks like and how we all experience and process trauma differently. Understanding that everyone goes through things in their own way, experiences it in their own way, heals from it in their own way and at their own pace would do a world of good. I think as a whole, we are lacking empathy. Things that can help increase our empathy would make an incredible difference. I think it would cause a reduction in this type of violence and an increase in the support available.

SWY: What is the most important thing that you want others to understand about abuse survivors?

JF: Just understanding that everybody’s healing journey is different and educating one’s self about how to support a survivor and what to say, what not to say. I think things like that would be a great help. Very often, it’s not the actual incident of violence that causes the most damage, but the lack of support after and the re-traumatizing words and actions of the people we go to for support. Just education, understanding that it’s a very complicated process to heal and go through these things.

SWY: Where does your strength come from?

JF: I haven’t always felt strong, that’s for sure. But, I feel very supported, I feel like I have a very strong relationship in terms of my spiritual life. I feel very supported by the divine and that I am walking in my purpose. Also, one of the biggest things that have helped with my strength and my confidence is facing fears. Not fears that are going to put me in danger, but sort of irrational fears like public speaking. Conquering that was a huge boost in my self-esteem, and also led to me discovering that public speaking is probably the thing I do best. So, I would say facing fears has led to my strength.

Thank you Jungle Flower for your vulnerability and strength throughout this interview!