Writer and spoken word artist Nikki Patin has long been an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and harm in creative spaces. In 2005, she left a position as a teaching artist when the institution she was working for (which she prefers not to name) seemed uninterested in protecting students from sexual harassment and assault, and she started working at Rape Victims Advocates—now Resilience—as a sexual assault prevention educator. She remained involved in Chicago’s spoken word scene and continued to see pleas for protection from survivors ignored.“Here in Chicago when survivors and other folks who had experienced sexual harm were showing up to open mikes to call out these predators or call out the problem, they were being turned away, they were being asked not to participate,” Patin says. “At that point I just got super fed up and was like, I am tired of asking people to be inclusive and respectful and to make room for survivors. We just need our own space.”
Surviving the Mic is that space. It started in 2014 as a one-off ten-week workshop combining education around advocacy and the history of sexual violence with lessons on writing and performing techniques. At the end of that ten weeks, workshop students under Patin’s supervision started an open mike in a vintage clothing store in Wicker Park as a place for survivors to tell their stories freely and without interruption. Now, five years later, thanks to a handful of volunteers, support from the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, and permanent homes at K.L.E.O. Community Center in Washington Park and the Hyde Park Art Center, Surviving the Mic is thriving. In addition to the open mike, there is now a livestream podcast that features interviews with a different guest each month.
“The number one question I want to ask every person who features—really anyone who even shows up to Surviving the Mic—is ‘How did you survive?’” Patin says. “And if we only get to ask one question, that’s the question that gets asked, because I feel like that is what all of us are trying to do.”
Poet Cherlnell Lane will guest during this month’s edition of Surviving the Mic on Monday, November 11. Patin says it’s important to amplify the voices of women like Lane, who is a Black woman from the south side of Chicago, because even though a majority of survivors are Black women and women of color, they don’t often get to tell their own stories.
Surviving the Mic operates as a “brave space,” meaning that while no one can guarantee a completely safe space, everyone in the room is agreeing to the space’s guidelines—things like asking for consent before touching, not trying to dig deeper into someone’s story about being harmed, and acknowledging that people are surviving multiple things at once.
“One thing we say at Surviving the Mic is that everyone is surviving something,” Patin says. “That’s also a nod to the intersectionality as well, that folks are walking through the door, not just walking through with their experiences of sexual harm, they’re walking through with their experiences of racism and sexism and transphobia and classism, and all of those things can be part of the story too.”
One of the most valuable aspects of Surviving the Mic is the community it’s built over the past five years. And that community continues to grow—Patin says there hasn’t been one event since the mike started that didn’t have at least one new person present. While there have been people who have come to the mike and gone on to further pursue spoken word, the goal of Surviving the Mic is not necessarily to foster budding poets. It’s to give survivors the power to tell their story exactly as they want it to be told.
“I’ve been a writer for a really long time, I know how cathartic the page can be—it’s this blank canvas that you can put whatever you want down,” Patin says. “But there’s something about saying it out loud that makes it real different. Often I think what survivors are navigating is negotiating that feeling of a loss of power and a loss of control, and being onstage is a space where you do have the power and you do have the control.” v