Get Loud and Get Out

By Kevin Tankersley

Q&A with Sophia Strother

Sophia Strother wants to be on TV. She wants to star in a reality show with three of her friends.

But Strother’s desire to be on television has nothing to do with becoming famous or getting rich. She hopes to be on TV so she can get her message out that victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence need to get loud and get out. Survivors of abuse and violence need to know there are others out there who have survived as well, and here are some of their stories.

Strother and her friends have filmed the pilot episode of “Our Journey Alive,” and it premiered at the Waco Hippodrome a few days ago. She’s hoping an online campaign can raise the money needed to find a distributor in Hollywood and allow them a chance to tell all their stories. The first episode centers on Carolyn Thomas, a Waco woman whose boyfriend, in 2003, shot her in the face at point-blank range. Students in the audio-visual program at Midway High School filmed and edited the episode.

Strother, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, formerly worked in Waco as director of development at Texas State Technical College and as corporate marketing director for the American Heart Association. She now lives in Pflugerville and works for the state.

Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley talked with Strother on a recent Saturday morning in Waco.

WACOAN: Are you from this area?

Strother: I was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts. My mother’s side of my family is from the Marlin, Waxahachie, Waco area. I moved here in September 2005. I’ve been in Waco ever since — back and forth between here and Pflugerville.

WACOAN: What brought you to Waco from Springfield?

Strother: My daughter was born April 2005. It was a very traumatic pregnancy and delivery. As a result of that, I ended up in a coma for two weeks after she was born and had some very tragic health issues.

My husband at the time said, ‘Why don’t we go south and go closer to family?’ We had three spots. It was Texas, Georgia or Florida where we had family. We came to Hewitt where my aunt still lives. We fell in love and ended up putting our roots here.

WACOAN: And is your daughter OK?

Strother: Oh, yes. She’s fine. I wasn’t OK. She’s 11. Her name is Leloni Simone Mullen. She used to go to Spring Valley Elementary. We recently relocated to Pflugerville so I could take a position with the state of Texas. She’s in sixth grade now. She participates every year at Jubilee Theatre with Mission Waco in the theater camp, and she’s done a few plays with them as well.

WACOAN: What do you do for the state?

Strother: I work with the Prevention and Early Intervention Division, which is with the Department of Family and Protective Services. I’m a community impact team lead, so I lead a team statewide to go into communities and help them develop their early childhood coalitions and collaborations that lead to change for families.

WACOAN: Did your story of survival lead to your job?

Strother: Yes. You know, it’s funny. I got hired on this job not based on my professional career. I got hired based on what I do in the community. I’m the co-founder of Juneteenth Family Fun Day that has happened at Brazos Park for the last seven years. It’s the largest event in a 200-mile radius celebrating Juneteenth. We have about 5,000 who attend annually. I’ve done a billboard campaign, which got some recognition. It was all the smaller things I’ve done outside of my main compass of work that really led them to say I have passion for the grassroots effort.

WACOAN: OK. So you and the Midway High School audio visual production team got together after you saw a video that the team had made. Is that right?

Strother: Correct. Let me go with the history of how it came to me seeing that.

I’m a survivor of child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence. Over the years, I’ve done a few things throughout the city to raise awareness. I have a couple of girlfriends who also are survivors of various things. Domestic violence, and one [survived] verbal and emotional abuse, which is a form of domestic violence as well.

It was in February, and I was talking with Carolyn Thomas, who a lot of people know nationally for her story. She was telling me about some of the woes of dating. It’s not funny, but if you know Carolyn, she’s actually hilarious in how she describes and tells her stories. I was laughing, but it was something negative for her. She said, ‘I’m just so sick of this.’

Sometimes you go through so much that your initial reaction is, ‘OK. Here we are. Again. Really? This is my life.’ That’s kind of where I am in my life [with] all the things I’ve been through. Sometimes, all I can do is hide the frown behind the smile. That’s all I can do.

WACOAN: How do you know Carolyn?

Strother: Where I really remember our relationship blossoming is in 2009. I invited Martin Luther King III to East Waco to do a poverty listening-and-learning tour. We did a town hall meeting right on Garrison Street, and I invited [Carolyn], along with several others. I had the mayor at the time, Virginia Dupuy, and several others in that town hall. I invited her because I wanted her to be the face of what happens in East Waco, of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She was on my panel. From there, our relationship really grew closer from that point.

WACOAN: And the idea you pitched to her?

Strother: I told Carolyn, ‘You know what? So many people don’t realize what we as survivors go through after the fact.’ We’ve been seeing so many headlines about the suspects at Stanford University, Indiana University. They’re doing one day for rape where they admitted it or three months for two rapes. It’s like it’s no big deal. Or you’ll see in the news how, ‘We’re trying to make sure it minimizes their future and what they’ll be able to do in the future.’

It’s like everybody is concerned about what happens to the predators or suspects. That was a key point. Or they’re saying, ‘Why did the victim come out the next day? Why did it take them three weeks? Why did it take them a year? They can’t be truthful.’ Or, ‘Why don’t we look into her past? What did she do a month ago or two years ago or 10 years ago to discredit her?’

It’s so disgusting to me that it’s so easy for a suspect to get a pass, but it’s not easy for a victim to get a pass as far as actually giving her the benefit of the doubt that she might be actually telling the truth. Then we never know what happens to her, or him, because men are abused as well. But we never know what happens to [the victims].

[I told Carolyn] maybe we need to create a forum where we can actually tell our stories in real time and talk about the ups and downs and allow other survivors to see us. A lot of times you don’t get to see — because of privacy’s sake — other survivors survive unless they’re celebrities like [the actor] Gabrielle Union, who came about her story [about being sexually assaulted], and several others. I may not have the opportunity like she does, but there are everyday people like myself who need to see us.

I wrote a treatment for the docu-reality series, and I’m doing all the research I’m needing to do. I’m trying to find a distributor. I’m trying to find a production company to actually shoot [the series]. I’m getting ridiculous quotes about how much it is or [getting reactions like], ‘It’s not doable. No one wants to see survivors. No one really cares about their story. All the headlines are about the person who did it. They don’t care about how y’all are doing later on.’

I happened to participate in Shattered Dreams with Midway High School. I played the mother of one of the students, who is actually my cousin. I was there firsthand to see how the students ran the production. They did the filming. They did the post-production. And when I saw the final copy, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I have to get these students to do our thing. This could really work.’

WACOAN: And what is Shattered Dreams?

Strother: Shattered Dreams is something that Mothers Against Drunk Driving does. They go to different high schools, and they recreate an actual drunk driving scene. You have students who act the parts. They had a club scene. They had a party, and a bunch of students get in the car drunk. Then you have the accident.

The makeup and everything just looked so spot-on. The [AV production students] were so professional. It was so good. You wouldn’t know that students edited and produced that. It’s really top-notch work.

Then I reached out to Tanya Lacy, who is over the AV department at Midway High School, and I said, ‘We’re a bunch of survivors. We want to tell our story, and we want to tell it in a format that’s a series. Do you think this is something your students might be interested in doing?’ Immediately, she said yes.

From there, the weekend of May 13 we got together and filmed two half-days. My son, who is a former Midway High School student, was part of the production team as well. There were five students total. We filmed it, and over the summer two students, who are now college students, worked with me to edit it and got it almost to where I want it.

Once it’s picked up and we have next-level production, I can get the full vision of what we’re looking to do. But it’s a great starting point to expose what we’re looking to do and make this something that’s national.

WACOAN: How long have you been thinking about doing this series?

Strother: I’m gonna be honest. I’ve been thinking about doing a reality series on myself for quite some time — not in the focus of having several survivors — because of some of the things I’ve been through.

Coach [Ken] Carter, who resides in Marlin, from the movie ‘Coach Carter,’ I’ve worked with him on numerous occasions. I told him, ‘Coach, I need you to help me get a reality series. You wouldn’t believe [what I’ve been through].’

My oldest son is the product of a rape, and he’s now become everything I abhor in men. Just that balance of trying to love on him yet despise who he’s become and the actions that he has [taken]. And there’s this strenuous relationship with my mother, who is a former addict. I haven’t seen her in two years because I don’t want to.

All of this I’m going through can’t just be for me. It just can’t. After I wrote my first book, I told [Carter] I would love to do something where I could hopefully show this life to others, and maybe they could get a clue that they’re not alone and learn what not to do based on some of the things that I did. And it just blossomed beyond me with the other survivors.

Carolyn, her thing happened 12 years ago. She’s still having surgery. I was just with her. She’s to have eye surgery. She might be losing her vision. She has two more to come. It’s 12 years later, and she’s still grappling with what happened to her. It morphed into more than me.

[Carter] would say, ‘Sophia, you’re the only person I know who falls forward.’ I take that with a badge of honor because you are going to fall. But what are you going to do when you do fall? And moving forward has been my pledge.

WACOAN: What’s the appeal of a reality series and having a camera crew recording everything that you do?

Strother: The series doesn’t document everything we do. It’s partially a scripted series in the sense to where I purpose certain things we do. In every episode you’ll get one of our stories unveiled to you. We’ll talk a little bit about what actually happened to us. You’ll see us interact in an activity that we feel is therapeutic that anyone can do.

In the first episode, you’ll see us at Practically Pikasso doing some artwork in tiling. Courtney, who is one of our survivors, she loves art, and that’s very therapeutic for her. What I want you to see in the series — if you’re a survivor or victim or whatever — [are] things you can do that may help you through.

In the sense of it being a reality series, I don’t script what we say. Once we get into this scenario, it’s whatever comes out. But I do script that I want it to be strategic in how we affect lives. It’s not like the ‘Real Housewives of Orange County.’ You’re not going to see us fighting and carrying on. It’s not meant to be dramatic. It’s meant to be real.

WACOAN: You said, ‘I could do a series.’ You wrote the treatment for the first episodes. I like your confidence. What leads up to your saying, ‘I can do a television series’?

Strother: Really, once I found my voice, I haven’t stopped talking since. One thing Coach Carter said when I went to write my book, [he said] ‘Tell your story all the time. Even if people don’t want to hear it, tell your story all the time.’

My master’s degree is in marketing, so I kind of know that if I want to get certain things out, I have to do a little research and get it in the hands of certain people who do the work. Education lent itself to me having the confidence to go out and research it — not necessarily that I’m the expert in it.

That’s what led me to do it. I ended up learning what a treatment is, your pitch, your log line, all of that little stuff. It came from doing research on others who have done it.

WACOAN: What helped you find your voice?

Strother: My book. Having the courage to come out. For years I would not come out [as a survivor of abuse]. For one [reason] was because of my mother. It’s the craziest thing. In our family, it was taboo to admit she was on drugs. We all know she was on drugs. But because she was still around, you didn’t say it.

Then I had my grandmother, who was my father’s mother. She was my guardian angel. She took me in when I was 15 with my 3-month-old son at the time. My life was forever changed because of my father’s mother. Because he was the perpetrator, I never wanted to come out. And that was her only child. I never wanted to come out and hurt her.

I had started secretly writing. In 2010, I said, ‘I can’t live for them anymore. I’m 30 years old. I cannot live being scared of how I’m going to hurt someone else’s feelings when this was my reality. This was my life.’ That’s when I went to her and let her read the manuscript. She shed a tear.

WACOAN: The manuscript about her son.

Strother: Yes. The first thing she said to me was, ‘I’m sorry.’ I was shocked more than anything. She said, ‘I’m sorry that you felt that you could not share your truth because of me.’ All I needed really was her blessing. She’s passed now, but she gave me that.

WACOAN: Back to your series. There are three other women involved. Are they from this area?

Strother: Shavonne Na’tey and Carolyn [Thomas] both live here. Me and Courtney Seals both live in Austin.

WACOAN: You talked about how you met Carolyn. How did you meet the others?

Strother: Shavonne is a ridiculous singer. That girl can sing. None of us can remember the moment we met. It feels like I’ve known her forever.

Four or five years ago, a local pastor used to host these Friday night gigs for gospel artists. She was there, and from there I asked her to sing at an event I was doing.

WACOAN: And how did you meet Courtney?

Strother: Courtney works with me. One day she came into my office and confided something to me. I was in the throes of thinking through and casting for the series and said, ‘Courtney, you’ve got to do the show.’

She was very hesitant because her family doesn’t know about her abuse. We have a lot of similarities. She had a mother that abused drugs. She and her grandmother are very close, and me and my grandmother are very close. We have very similar backgrounds. I kind of talked her into doing it.

WACOAN: What are the messages you’re trying to get out to the public through your books and this series?

Strother: The first message is to get loud and get out. That’s kind of our motto.

For many of us there were several incidences. Just like Carolyn, that was a long-term relationship she had been abused in. And even though they weren’t in a relationship [at the time of the shooting], she was still dealing with him. A lot of times we need to get ourselves out. We need to get loud and get out before it’s too late. So one of the messages is — hopefully by seeing us you can see — there can be life after abuse.

A lot of times you can’t see your way out. Maybe that person has ostracized you from the rest of your family, which happens a lot, where you feel you don’t have anyone to go to or your family won’t believe you because you’ve gone out and come back in so many times.

Women can get loud and get out and know there are advocacy centers. There are abuse centers. There are other survivors who are willing to help. The police department can be a help if you let them know. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there, but there are ways to do that to get loud and get out.

The main two things are to get loud and get out and there is life after abuse. You can live again. You can survive after abuse.

WACOAN: What are some misconceptions about survivors of abuse and violence?

Strother: When you have survivors that don’t come out right away, the biggest misconception is — for whatever ridiculous reason — is that it’s their fault because they chose the time they wanted to come out, or it’s suspicious, or it’s a conspiracy.

It took me until I was 30 to feel comfortable truly coming out. And I had a very legitimate reason: I didn’t want to hurt my grandmother. It wasn’t because the person didn’t do it. I just wasn’t ready.

And the second myth is that people don’t realize that most offenders are people close to you or that you know. Seventy-six percent of the time it’s somebody you know, not a complete stranger just walking up to you.

You have to be strong and courageous to be able to speak out against somebody that you know — or that everybody in your immediate circle knows. They may not be as apt to believe it. But you do have to have the courage to do it, ’cause it will kill you.

WACOAN: Is there a point where survivors get over their abuse, and I know that “get over it” doesn’t convey the seriousness of what happened. I’m not trying to diminish that at all.

Strother: I feel that we go through PTSD as well. Just like [when] veterans come home, they’re never, ever over what they saw and what they experienced — ever. For them every single day is a journey of healing and being able to cope with what they’ve been through. I feel it’s the same for survivors. I don’t feel you’re ever over it because at any moment you can be triggered.

WACOAN: And what’s taking place at the Waco Hippodrome on November 1?

Strother: The premiere of the pilot episode of ‘Our Journey Alive.’ One hundred percent of everything you’ll see the Midway AV students filmed and edited.

It talks about Carolyn’s story. We’re at Klassy Glass first just having some girls’ talk. It tells you a little bit about Carolyn’s story, and then you’ll see us at Practically Pikasso. It’s a 30-minute episode. The second episode will deal with us taking Carolyn dancing, helping her get her groove back a little bit. Then we get into raw emotions. We have a session with a clinical psychiatrist guiding us and a local pastor to talk through some emotions about being a survivor.

WACOAN: You started an Indiegogo account. The money raised there will go where?

Strother: I signed an agreement with Midway High School that when we are – because I’m claiming – picked up, I will donate 20 percent of the net proceeds back into the AV department.

The money we raise will help us secure a distributor. It takes money to get picked up. Hopefully we can create a 60-second trailer and a 30-second trailer and travel to Los Angeles to meet [with potential distributors]. This will allow us to do that. It will also allow us to do more marketing so we can market the show further out. Any money we have left over will get donated to the nonprofit where we continue to do different outreach.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Strother: I say this when I go speak: I wish I had a me when I was growing up. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, you didn’t talk about this kind of stuff. You didn’t see advocacy groups out there. You didn’t see the victim ever.

One of the things I’ve made my mission is to be seen. I want people to know there are others like us. You don’t have to be quiet. You don’t have to [stay] silent. Again, you don’t have to tell your story to the world, but telling your story so you can get out of a situation can save your life.