“I have never expected so much support, love, and kindness from so many women and men. What happened to me, it shouldn’t happen ever, to men or women. And that’s why I shared it, because we have a voice and a choice.”

Before Vanessa died, I lived in a bubble. I knew that assault and gender-based violence were real issues in our society, however, the thought that I, or anyone I loved, could ever be a victim, rarely crossed my mind.

Fast forward to today, a year and a half after Vanessa’s death, and sometimes I am still in utter disbelief that this actually happened to my best friend. As much as I hope that I will wake up and it will all just be a horrific nightmare, I know that’s not reality. Fueled by the desire to prevent future senseless acts, I helped establish the Vanessa T. Marcotte Foundation. The foundation envisions a world where women live free from objectification and harassment. However, there is a lot that needs to be done before we live in this kind of world. The first, and most critical step, is raising awareness.

A few months after Vanessa died, I came across this post by AnaGoesFit, a Boston-based fitness blogger. I am typically drawn to her “fitspo” posts about how to live a healthy lifestyle and instagram feed of delicious healthy meals with perfect lighting. This post, however, was different. Ana shared that she started her day the same as usual. She left her apartment before the sun came up to teach her fitness class, and the next thing she remembered was waking up in the hospital. She had been assaulted.

The post Ana shared on her Instagram account to spread awareness about her assault.

The post Ana shared on her Instagram account to spread awareness about her assault.

Like a lot of people, I was incredibly moved by Ana’s post. I reached out to her to thank her for spreading awareness, share Vanessa’s story, and ask her if she would be willing to help with the foundation in the future. She responded right away that she would be happy to help in any way that she could. I recently had the chance to interview her. Here’s what she had to say about her experience and why she’s compelled to raise awareness and advocate for our cause.

It can happen to anyone.

When talking to Ana, I learned that before her assault she was just like I had been before Vanessa died. She never thought this could happen to her. She said: “I always thought Boston was safe, but this experience taught me that this can happen anywhere.” Ana decided to share her story on social media to help raise awareness. When I asked her why she chose to share her story, she said:  “I wanted to show people that it happens to anyone. I feel like everyone thinks this could never happen to them. I wanted to share so people are mindful, more aware that it can happen. It doesn’t matter if you are privileged, have a great lifestyle, it can still happen to you.”

Change starts with awareness.

Given her following on social media, Ana expected her post to have a big reaction. What surprised her was how big of a reaction she received. She said: “People were very kind and willing to share their stories. It opened my eyes to how often this happens. The reaction was amazing. It brought a lot of people together, especially in the Boston fitness community, where there are a lot of women who often work very early, or late hours, and are commuting alone.” Ana was hesitant to share her story because it came at an emotional time – it was right before the holidays and her brother had passed away a month before. She was moved by the reaction and the outpouring of support she received, and was happy to bring attention to an issue that needs to be discussed.

Boston fitness community coming together to show their support a few days after Ana's assault

Boston fitness community coming together to show their support a few days after Ana’s assault

Women deserve more.

What resonated with me most about Ana’s post was her belief that women deserve more. She mentions that “women shouldn’t need to feel scared to walk alone in the dark, be constantly aware of her surroundings, carry pepper spray, or wear protective rings.” Although I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more, I realize we don’t live in this world yet. I’ve learned that now more than ever, as we continue to work toward a world where we truly are free to live boldly and fearlessly, it’s important that women are aware of their surroundings.

Listening to Ana’s response about how her behavior has changed since her attack was another reminder of why our foundation is working so hard to carry out our mission. She admitted that “sadly yes” she has changed her behavior since her assault. She recounted, “I used to be very naive. I thought I was living in a very safe community and that I didn’t need to worry about this stuff. My morning commute was my me time, I always wore headphones and zoned out.” In addition to “just opening her eyes a little bit more, and being more aware of her surroundings,” Ana has also changed her daily routine. She told me: “Now I try and time my workouts around when the sun is out, or when I know more people will be out and about. I try and avoid walking late at night by myself.”

As Ana talked about how her attack has forced her to change her behaviors, I started to tear up a little. It was all too familiar. I thought about Vanessa and how she cherished her walks in Princeton. Taking walks outside was her time to disconnect before heading back to the hustle and bustle of New York City. I thought about how my morning walk to the “T” was also my favorite part of the day – a time to truly unplug, zone out, and reflect. Now, like Ana, I am always more aware of my surroundings. I always stay alert, keep one headphone out of my ear, and never let my guard down.

We can’t just wait for a change.

Although Ana has felt the need to change her routines, she believes that “women shouldn’t be scared to go out alone.” She dreams of a world where she, and all women, are able to “go out alone without being scared, regardless of the time or the neighborhood.”  All of these reasons have compelled Ana to be an advocate for change. She told me, “I want to raise awareness. It’s not okay what happens to women. We need to make a change and, we are the ones who are going to make the change. We can’t wait for someone else. If we don’t do anything, it’s not going to happen.”

It’s not just a women’s issue.

When asked what needs to change in our society in order to live in a world where women truly can live boldly and fearlessly, Ana shared a lot of ideas. She pointed out that both men and women have a responsibility to change their behavior to move toward this change and that “it starts with gender equality.” The most actionable advice for women is “to start small. Start in your friend groups. Start empowering women. Stop bashing other women. It’s a snowball effect. Let’s change that way we talk about each other,” and she is right.

She called for men to “start putting it in perspective.” When men hear other men talking badly about women (even if it’s in a joking manner or just goofing off at a bar), they should ask themselves: “Would you want someone to talk to your wife, mother, sister, girlfriend, or daughter like that?” As women, Ana believes we can help men understand where we are coming from by “helping them visualize themselves in our place.” She also noted that the gender stereotypes women face are a large contributing factor to the objectification of women in society. To address this, according to Ana, we need “men to acknowledge that women are equal, women are strong, women can do anything.”

As I reflect on my conversation with Ana, I feel a mix of emotions. I feel so connected to what she said, and at the same time, overwhelmed, knowing that change won’t be easy. I feel grateful for her support, and inspired by her resilience. But mostly, I feel compelled to keep spreading awareness and fighting for change. Ana’s words sum it up perfectly: “I have never expected so much support, love, and kindness from so many women and men. What happened to me, it shouldn’t happen ever, to men or women. And that’s why I shared it, because we have a voice and a choice.”

Learn more about Ana at STRIKE for Vanessa on January 21st, where she will be delivering opening remarks. You can learn more about Ana on her blog or by following her on Instagram @anagoesfit.