Maia Christopher is ATSA’s executive director, most people will recognise her from conference, those who have had the chance to speak and meet with her will recognise that the majority of the work she does on a daily basis supports ATSA’s mission in the field of sexual harm prevention. Maia has many roles which include sitting on national and international committees, speaking at conferences and other events, as well as helping to frame the sexual harm agenda. I talked to Maia about her work, where she came from, how she got to where she is today and where she sees herself in the future. We also spoke about the field of sexual harm moving into the future.
Given Maia’s expertise and experiences from her criminal justice and treatment days in Canada, to taking over and managing ATSA, to the high level collaborative work she is involved in now, it was hard to identify how to ground this narrative. Then she gave me an example, an unconventional piece of prevention work that she had recently been involved with and everything slotted together. Maia told me of a recent experience that she and Kelly McGrath, Associate Director of ATSA, had when they attended a conference.
Every year ATSA has a conference and every year Maia and the ATSA staff assist in the development of the programme around it. From arranging book sellers to sorting out finances and planning everything else that needs to happen over the main 5 days of the conference.
Maia told me that herself and Kelly recently attended an event planning conference, the aim of which was to give conference organisers insights, ideas and new approaches to better plan and streamline large conferences. The night before they left for the conference they were deciding what to bring with them to promote ATSA and the work that, as an organisation, is presented at ATSA’s annual conference. They items they took included twenty-four prevention badges emblazoned with slogans promoting ATSA’s work. Maia and Kelly distributed these badges across the event planning conference venue the night before the conference, out of the sight of other attendees. The simple distribution of the prevention badges had a massive impact during and beyond the life of the conference. Attendees began having conversations with each other and with Maia about sexual abuse, victims, policy, prevention, how people are impacted by sexual harm, what treatment looks like, whether offenders are mad or bad and related news coverage.
People picked up the badges and thought about how sexual harm had affected their lives and/or the lives of people close to them. Seeing the badges promoted people to talk, some of whom were uncomfortable about the conversation, but they all felt the conversation was one that needed to be had. The reason why this is important is because these individuals where not representatives from the arena of sexual harm or related professions like police, probation or prisons— “outsiders” not ”insiders”. This meant that Maia, Kelly and the badges were not preaching to the converted, but people from a range of different, unrelated and everyday professions who were more representative of the public at large.
Although, the debate and discussion among the delegates was important it was not the only significant thing that happened. Across the life of the conference the attendees started to think about how conferences, as an entity, could be more productively used to highlight and discuss issues of sexual harm; including information about safeguarding attendees, local support service on sexual harm matters and how an increase in awareness of sexual harm issues for hotel staff could be provided. Maia felt that a door had been opened on to the topic of sexual harm by people not working in the field who wanted to discuss and promote it in the areas in which they worked.
Maia felt that the badges had a massive impact, that they were an ice breaker, a mechanism through which people could discuss sexual harm and relate it back to their lives and experiences while also thinking about how they could incorporate it into their daily workings. Interestingly, Maia felt that the real success here was in stepping out of the field, going to non-sexual harm related conferences and talking about the issue. She feels that this is part of her, and every ATSA member’s job. Although, she did recognise that she would have felt it was a massive leap of faith when she was working in the criminal justice system as opposed to the smaller leap of faith that she has to take in the role she has now. Maia closed the conversation with some pertinent advice to us all when talking to people who do not work in the sexual harm field about the main issues – “keep it simple, keep it to the point, listen and respond”.
Kieran McCartan, PhD