The Impact of Collective Storytelling:

Victims of Sexual Harassment Find a Way to Raise Their Voice

The case of Vanessa Guillen became a story that moved many people across the United States. During times of turmoil and uncertainty, after the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the national quarantine mandate, Vanessa Guillen’s tragic story did not fail to bring to light issues in the military. On April 22nd of 2020, Vanessa Guillen was reported missing from Fort Hood, a military base located in Fort Hood, Texas. Sadly, Guillen’s body was found dismembered and burned about twenty-five miles from Fort Hood in the Leon River. Vanessa Guillen ultimately became another victim of sexual assault while serving in the military. Her family later shared that a couple of days before her disappearance, Guillen had shared that she had been sexually harassed by two men in her base. In the year 2019, “6,236 reports of sexual assault were filed by active duty service members” (Jindia). Shockingly, according to defense department’s sexual assault prevention and response office, an estimated one in three service members report sexual assault (Jindia). This is a growing phenomenon that is particularly affecting young women who decide to serve their country as the “department’s estimated number of sexual assaults rose sharply between 2016 and 2018,” with a focus on women ages 17 to 24, like Guillen (Jindia). Yet, what has been done to ensure a safe environment for these young women in the military is very little. The fear of retaliation and lack of accountability have created fear in women and thus have silenced their voice.

The retaliation women face is troublesome in terms of the support they can receive after this traumatic experience. It is frustrating to know that even after women are treated this way during their service, they face backlash and retaliation from their commanding officers. According to the defense department, “only one of the 129 retaliation cases it [defense department] investigated in 2018,” was able to be presented with support and evidence. In addition to this percentage being low, it shows the lack of support servicewomen or servicemen may receive if they decide to speak up to report the military member who is sexually assaulting him or her. These statistics and facts help us better understand the severity of this issue and the importance and urgency to do something. Tristeza Ordex, a retired marine corps staff sergeant makes an important remark: “When the chain of command tries to be the one that’s involved, it’s like the police policing itself” (Jindia). How can one feel comfortable about reporting sexual assault to someone in your commanding chain that could potentially be the person accusing you? Knowing this, fear and helplessness empowers the victim to stay silent and submissive.

The story of Vanessa Guillen triggered many people from various backgrounds to join the movement, #IAmVanessaGuillem, through the aid of social media. This paper will explore and discuss the effect of collective storytelling in social media to help create an environment that promotes identity formation and community. Some characteristics of collective storytelling became an integral part of the continuation of identity searching and the personal connections created along the way. Likewise, this paper will argue the constructive role that collective storytelling played on the social movement through its involvement of personal stories and shared experiences. This idea ultimately brings to lights issues and stories that hadn’t been shared before due to fear, worry, retaliation, or shame. The paper will begin by explaining what collective storytelling is and will include an example to illustrate some of its characteristics. Afterwards, Vanessa Guillen’s story will be explored followed by the contribution of social media to the movement, #IAmVanessaGuillen.

What is Collective Storytelling?

The process of collective storytelling centers around the collaboration of ideas, thoughts, and experiences. Storytelling can take many forms such as written, verbal, visual, or a combination of these different forms. Essentially, it helps create an atmosphere that welcomes experiences and other personal stories. It is important to emphasize that the role of collective storytelling is vital for social change. In her article, “Using Story to Change Systems,” Ella Saltmarshe includes the following statement:

It’s a direct route to our emotions, and therefore important to decision-making. It [story]creates meaning out of patterns. It coheres communities. It engenders empathy across difference. It enables the possible to feel probable in ways our rational minds can’t comprehend. When it comes to changing the values, mindsets, rules, and goals of a system, story is foundational.

The way that Saltmarshe describes collective storytelling helps better understand the impacts of this idea and for us to create meaningful connections to the social movement, #IAmVanessaGuillen, that will be discussed later in this paper. The influence of storytelling to the real-world is quite unique in that people express themselves through some kind of story that resonates with them. Thus, from these personal stories, others find themselves connecting with one another in unexpected ways. This in turn creates a community. Of course, this process is not something that comes easily as people are usually opening themselves up about personal moments or ideas. It requires time and understanding within the community to come together in order to challenge or change issues.

The importance of collective storytelling can be noticed by how the community captivates their stories through social movements. The strength and empowerment that members of the community build from collectively sharing their personal experiences becomes motivation for these stories to grow and expand out to other communities or individuals. According to Tarrow’s definition, he states that social movements are “better defined as collective challenges, based on common purpose and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities’’ (Dimond et al.). Thus, a key element of social movements involves a common purpose in which members of a community focus on.

Saltmarshe further elaborates on three characteristics of storytelling where all sectors “can [be] use[d] to change systems: story as light, as glue, and as web.” However, in our discussion the characteristics of story as light and as glue will be further explored. Saltmarshe writes, “Story helps illuminate the past, present, and future, thus lighting up the paths of change.” This is an intriguing idea that allows us to further explore the idea of collective storytelling beyond the general definition of shared experiences or ideas. Stories are a way to reflect on experiences of the past or present and think about this as we imagine our future. Thus, collective stories are a vital part of social movements because it helps create an environment that encourages connections, understanding, and change. The second characteristic of story as glue further reinforces the importance of collective storytelling to build an identity. Saltmarshe describes: “Story is also a tool for building community through empathy and coherence.” This metaphor is a good visual representation to understand the literal constructive role of collective storytelling to build an identity despite different backgrounds. More than a collection of stories from past experiences or future goals for change, storytelling in a community helps unify every piece, from each story, in order to build an identity. As “one of the most widespread social activities through which people in different cultures share personal memories and cultural information,” storytelling is a way to hold a community together (Bietti et al.).

In collective storytelling, it is also important to discuss how memory helps shape identity in a community. By the nature of stories, they can be “highly memorable” (Bietti et al.). This means that it is likely for a person to recall a story that was shared with him or her. In fact, memory is “a cognitive ability that enables the transmission of the information and the facilitation of social cohesion” (Bietti et al.). Therefore, through memory, storytelling becomes a way for people to share bits of information from each other, which ultimately formulates deep connections. A “shared reality” can be consequently through the sharing of memories. Having this connection, members piece together a powerful message they hope to convey to the public. The “social bonds or feelings of belonging and community,” is then possible by the connections from various stories shared (Bietti et al.).

Collective Storytelling and the Workplace

To help illustrate the impact of collective storytelling, we will focus on how this concept is effectively incorporated into businesses and organizations. Recently, there has been an increase in interest for people who can integrate their storytelling skills into the work setting. Why is this? Christopher Fuller, Griot’s Eye Founder and Chief Scribe, wrote an article that helps us understand how collective storytelling has become “vital in today’s leaders and organizations” (Fuller). Essentially, the role of storytelling is important to communicate and create connections between employees and other staff members. Storytelling is also recognized as a “leadership tool” due to its influence on human behavior (Fuller). This an important consideration in businesses and corporations since it requires for its employees to connect to one another and share their ideas and opinions in an effective manner. In addition, Fuller also shares that through storytelling, employees can help “shape corporate opinion and behavior” by sharing stories about the organization’s goals and accomplishments. The importance of these skills mainly centers around the application of unique techniques that can help an organization flourish and connect with stakeholders. It is essential to take into account that when a group of people are able to transmit the organization’s mission and goals it helps for others to visualize what the organization has in mind, thus creating a shared inspiration or objective (Fuller). Sharing these insights through storytelling is an effective way to resonate with the community and eventually develop strategies and connections to build marketing and branding techniques for the organization.

In connection with the social movement that in a few sections we will be exploring, this example helps visualize that collective storytelling carries importance in different sectors. As shared previously, storytelling helps people build a community and is also “instrumental in fostering bonds in many other small-scale social units” (Bietti et al.). As seen in the article by Christopher Fuller, storytelling is an important aspect for community building and mission coherence between employees and possible stakeholders. The way that collective storytelling is built in this specific setting is through presentations and Q&A interactions with the audience (Fuller). Together, the presenters, other employees, or audience members are actively engaging and creating a community with a similar purpose. Through the incorporation of storytelling, a collaborative environment can be built by the participants.

Story of Vanessa Guillen

After briefly discussing the idea of collective storytelling and its impacts or influences, we will now explore how storytelling became an integral part of the protests following the disappearance of Specialist Vanessa Guillen. However, before we discuss the social movement, #IAmVanessaGuillen, we will learn a little more about who Vanessa Guillen was.

Image of Specialist Vanessa Guillen

Vanessa Guillen, a daughter of two Mexican immigrant parents, decided to enlist at the age of 18 despite her mother’s resistance (Diaz et al.). On April 23, 2020, Guillen was reported missing from the base and on April 24th the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command “posted a news release asking for the public’s help in finding” her. (Diaz et al.). This led thousands of soldiers to search buildings, barracks, and fields. After about two months of anguish for the Guillen family, Vanessa Guillen’s remains were found in the Leon River in Texas. Vanessa had told her family that she was being sexually harassed by “two different soldiers who outranked her,” including the man, Aaron David Robinson, who with his accomplice, Cecily Aguilar, murdered Guillen (Jindia). Due to fear of retaliation for reporting the two men, Guillen decided to stay silent. Likewise, Natalie Khawam, the Guillen family’s attorney, stated: “We believe that Vanessa told him [Robinson] that she was reporting him, and that’s why he bludgeoned her.”

This issue was truly moving for several people across the country as they remained vigilant on Vanessa Guillen’s case during her disappearance and afterwards. How can it be that people, especially women, are treated this way during their service to our country? Instead, several times sexual harassment or assault victims are ignored and pushed aside to the corner. In 2015, a sergeant with the base’s sexual assault reporting unit “pleaded guilty to running a postitution ring with vulnerable young soldiers” (Jindia). This would have been the same unity Guillen would have reported too if she had decided to report the two soldiers who sexually harassed her. It is evident that the issue of sexual harassment and assault is growing since the military bases and units are not focused on solving this isssue. Instead, many times the rules favor the accusers in that they find themselves working around their actions with little to no punishment. For example, under the current system, “servicemembers who grope, cat-call, or create hostile work environments’’ normally don’t undergo any corrections (Frame). And if they do, the punishments eventually don’t have “any lasting effect on their careers’’ (Frame).

Social Media Sphere and Presence

We will now explore how social media became a tool that helped several servicewomen and female veterans to share their stories concerning this issue. Through social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, many famous artists and actors joined the conversation surrounding Guillen’s case and support for the Guillen family. It is important to take into consideration the restless determination and perseverance of Vanessa Guillen’s family to fight for justice. It is truly inspiring that the Guillen family, despite their loss, decided to go to great lengths to share Vanessa Guillen’s story with the rest of the country.

In discussion with the presence of social media in protests for change in military systems, it was also noted the presence of famous people to the Guillen case. For instance, prominent figure in the #MeToo movement and actor, Rose McGowan, “advocated for Specialist Guilllen on Twitter” (Steinhauer). In addition, President Joe Biden said in a statement: “We owe it to those who put on the uniform, and to their families, to put an end to sexual harassment and assault in the military, and hold perpetrators accoundtable” (Steinhauer). People from across different backgrounds joined together to fight and voice their voices. Through the help of social media, it was made more feasible to present evidence, something that hadn’t been possible before. Now, social media has become a voice for victims of sexual harassment or assault to express in some way what they went through (Sicard). They no longer have to be pushed into the darkness or swept under the rug if they decide to speak about what they went through.

The Chance to Speak

Military culture limits a woman to express herself. In fact, many women find themselves having the risk of being a victim of sexual harassment or assault for their feminine traits. The military creates an environment that suppresses a female service member to act or behave a certain way in order for her to feel safer. Thus, their identity as females in the military is often ignored and troubled due to the way the rules or lifestyle is predominantly in the military. Women are indirectly required to adapt to the masculine predominant culture, where men are usually justified for their inappropriate actions towards their fellow female soldiers. Likewise, servicewomen find themselves searching for their own identity and “what it means to be a woman in the military,” as they rarely have the chance to bring this conversation up with other female veterans (Meade).

Due to the obstacles and challenges females face during their service in the military, support is needed in order to help create a different environment that helps women have the freedom of self-expression and of their own identity without fear or worry. For example, there have been some groups provided to help build community for servicewomen (Meade). From these support groups, women are able to share their experiences and feelings. Some central themes of discussion are “stories of harassment and assault, racism, heterosexism, and having to work twice as hard just to be seen as good enough” (Meade). It is evident that there has to be change within the systems of the military and its mindset. For instance, women feel that it is easier to be seen as “just ‘one of the guys’” since their feminine traits are often not valued or sexualized (Meade). The oppression of self-identity in the military has led many servicewomen to become frustrated and angry about what they have to deal with and live through for being a female in the military. Collective storytelling has opened a way for women to join together, share their stories, and speak up with strength and power.

The Collectiveness of Identity Seeking and Searching

The social movement created by the hashtag, #IAmVanessaGuillen, resonated with a lot of women, especially female veterans, to share their stories of sexual harassment or assault during their service. While some veterans shared their personal stories, others wrote their support for women who have experienced or are currently facing this issue through this hashtag. As more and more veterans shared stories and words of support, a community was created, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other backgrounds. The purpose to share personal experiences was to expose how women are treated in the military and what they go through. In addition, it was a way to support one another despite the hard experiences they bravely decided to share in social media. We see that the two qualities, discussed earlier in the paper, of story as light and as glue can be seen by the stories shared in #IAmVanessaGuillen. The experiences shared with the hashtag became a pathway for other women to join and share their experiences as well. These stories ultimately became a way to mark the flaws in military culture and the system that takes advantage of young servicemembers. In addition, it shines a light on future goals and what they hope to accomplish with these stories. This idea slowly builds and progresses as time goes on since the participants of this collective storytelling are the ones constructing their own pathway. Likewise, #IAmVanessaGuillen, served as a glue in which women from across the country joined in solidarity with fellow veterans and current servicewomen to raise awareness.

The stories shared in #IAmVanessauillen through the Twitter social media platform.

Under Vanessa Guillen’s name, female veterans identified themselves with Guillen because from their own experiences they know what each of them, or someone close to them, individually went through. Tristeza Ordex, a retired marine corps staff sergeant, said the following: “We are Vanessa Guillen, that’s our story too, it could have easily been any one of us” (Jindia). It is very powerful that she said “us,” because in this social movement women decided to stand next to each in order to fight against sexual harassment and assault. The frustration and anger over the lack of importance and attention on this issue has escalated and led many women to reflect that change has to be made. They can no longer wait in the shadows waiting to be another victim and then be silenced and ignored. Former Army Specialist, Ashley Martinez shared her thoughts:

Why am I giving my all and working towards a job in a system that does not care about me? I was another statistic. It was my first duty station, I was an enlisted soldier, my attacker was one, two or three ranks above me, and I was overseas. I’m just another statistic. And I felt like just another statistic.

Essentially, the stories have exposed the inconsistencies in a system that fails to protect and also fails to make the accuser accountable.

Through the #IAmVanessaGuillen movement, several women felt compelled to not only share their story to make known the problems in the military but also to create a sense of identity in which veterans and servicewomen are rarely given the opportunity to do. This community brought comfort and relief for women who needed to reflect on past experiences and share with younger generations of women in the army or those young women deciding to enlist. Collective storytelling has been a way to empower the servicewomen and veteran’s voice in demonstration that regardless of the broken systems or threats, they will speak up and challenge them. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind the opportunity for community through shared stories that acknowledges the complexities of every woman.

In conclusion, through the application of collective storytelling to the social media movement, #IAmVanessaGuillen, a sense of community and identity formation was created by the sharing of personal experiences and thoughts. Each story gave its own idea and contribution to the building and construction of an environment where current servicewomen and female veterans could engage in while feeling comfortable and supported. The case of Vanessa Guillen became a motivational catalyst that launched this social movement with the purpose for change. The process of storytelling is not quick, rather it takes time to create a community where women feel like they do have a voice, one that had been silenced for trying to speak up. Thus, it is important to acknowledge the work done by these strong women and the inspiration for change they have galvanized through their storytelling.

Works Cited

Bietti, Lucas M., et al. “Storytelling as Adaptive Collective Sensemaking.” Institute of Work and Organizational Psychology, University of Neuchatel, 8 May 2018.

Diaz, Johnny, et al. “What to Know About the Death of Vanessa Guillen.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/article/vanessa-guillen-fort-hood.html.

Dimond, Jill P., et al. “Hollaback!: The Role of Collective Storytelling Online in a Social Movement Organization.” Making the World a Better Place, Georgia Institute of Technology, 23–27, February 2013, dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/2441776.2441831

Frame, Carson. “In Response To Vanessa Guillen’s Death, Legislation Would Make Military Sexual Harassment A Crime.” American Homefront Project, 16 Sept. 2020, americanhomefront.wunc.org/post/response-vanessa-guillens-death-legislation-would-make-military-sexual-harassment-crime.

Fuller, Christopher. “Why Collective Storytelling Makes Better Leaders & Organizations.” Griot’s Eye, 8 Mar. 2020, www.griotseye.com/insights/collective-storytelling-why-it-is-important-to-leaders-organizations-improved-w-visuals.

Jindia, Shilpa. “‘We Are Vanessa Guillén’: Killing Puts Sexual Violence in US Military in Focus.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 July 2020, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/14/vanessa-guillen-killing-sexual-violence-us-military.

Meade, Vanessa. “Embracing Diverse Women Veteran Narratives: Intersectionality and Women Veteran’s Identity.” Journal of Veterans Studies, Virginia Tech Publishing, 10 Dec. 2020, journal-veterans-studies.org/articles/10.21061/jvs.v6i3.218/print/.

Saltmarshe, Ella. “Using Story to Change Systems (SSIR).” Stanford Social Innovation Review: Informing and Inspiring Leaders of Social Change, 20 Feb. 2018, ssir.org/articles/entry/using_story_to_change_systems.

Sicard, Sarah. “Hundreds Come Forward as #IAmVanessaGuillen Movement Surges Online.” Military Times, Military Times, 13 July 2020, www.militarytimes.com/off-duty/military-culture/2020/07/13/hundreds-come-forward-as-iamvanessaguillen-movement-surges-online/.

Steinhauer, Jennifer. “A #MeToo Moment Emerges for Military Women After Soldier’s Killing.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/11/us/politics/military-women-metoo-fort-hood.html.