Alumna rises from trauma to help survivors of sexual violence
The International Women’s Day this year marked a milestone in Monique Burke’s journey as a rape survivor. At a networking event for women entrepreneurs held in Toronto to mark the day, she pulled back the curtain on her newly founded non-profit organization, Watching Over Women or WOW Toronto, an empowerment centre for women who have survived rape, sexual violence, sexual harassment, or any form of gender-based violence.
Her venture received a special mention from Jill Andrew, MPP, Toronto-St.Paul’s, who spoke at the event. Burke says she was surprised and felt validated at the shout-out WOW Toronto received from the MPP. “I was not expecting that at all. I felt so empowered and heard. It solidified for me that persevering through all the challenges I have faced over the years was the right thing to do,” Burke says.
WOW Toronto is the result of Burke’s (Community Development ’14) determination to rise above her negative experiences to create a positive space for distressed women. The organization has been two years in the making, but it has been shaped over the last two decades during which Burke, who was raped by two males at 15 years of age, fought to overcome severe mental trauma, the widespread stigma against rape survivors, and the difficulties they encounter as they seek justice. As a mere teenager, she had to navigate police stations, hospitals, lawyers, and courtrooms. It was a harrowing experience which made her feel distraught and violated every step of the way, she says. When she lost the case against one of the accused, she was persuaded to withdraw her charges.
“At that young age, you are not really thinking about the repercussions or the consequences. You just want this whole to thing to go away and disappear. I was offered counselling services at the time, but I did not take it because I was afraid people would think there was something wrong with me,” she says.
“My experience of being a rape survivor gives other young women an opportunity to see that this (rape) happened to a woman, a Black woman, and she's able to open up and speak about it.”
With the support of her family and her close friends, Burke was able to get through her ordeal, but it was only later, when she was older, that she realized she hadn’t actually got over her trauma. “I started lashing out, cutting classes and, in general, not really caring about my life, till the time I realized that traumatic as it was, that one event couldn’t define me forever,” she says.
Burke made determined efforts to move ahead with her life. She graduated high school in 2003, and two years later joined Sheridan for a diploma in the Correctional Worker Program. She completed the program, but her heart wasn’t in it. She realized she was driven by the desire to remove the systemic shortcomings she had faced as a survivor of sexual violence, and work towards the empowerment of women with similar experiences.
Creating a safe place for healing
Burke returned to Sheridan and joined the Community Development Program to acquire the skills she needed to work in the non-profit sector. She says she got the most important lesson in her healing while working for the College’s Food Bank as a member of the Sheridan Student Union. “We would collect and distribute food to students who didn’t have enough to survive on. It was an eye opener for me to see students in a different light. It made me realize that there's far more to life than what happened to me, and that life is about giving back.”
Burke took a decisive step towards launching her own organization during the pandemic and joined a seven-week training program for entrepreneurs at Good to Be Good Foundation, an intersectional, grassroots organization that serves women and marginalized communities.
“I wanted to create an organization which provides ongoing support services for survivors of sexual assault in a safe, supportive place, where they can work on their healing, connect with other survivors, and have the opportunity to enjoy life again.”
“I wanted to create an organization which provides ongoing support services for survivors of sexual assault in a safe, supportive place, where they can work on their healing, connect with other survivors and have the opportunity to enjoy life again,” she says.
Now 37, Burke says she is a survivor who endured a pain she thought would never go away but healed over time. WOW Toronto, born out of those experiences, offers supports such as workshops that are built on the belief that every woman who has experienced rape or sexual assault will be respected, valued, and empowered to thrive to be the best version of herself, she says.
Giving back through Black Mentorship Program
Burke is also passionate about giving back to the Sheridan community by improving the lived experiences of Black students. For the last two years, she has been mentoring students through the Black Mentorship Program which provides a safe space for students to learn from the experiences of their alumni mentors as they navigate their education and work towards future careers as persons of colour.
“We would collect and distribute food to students who didn’t have enough to survive on. It made me realize that there's far more to life than what happened to me, and that life is about giving back.”
“As soon as I heard Sheridan was creating the Black Mentorship Program, I was fully on board because I wish when I was young and in school, I had someone to look up to, someone who looked like me and understood my background and my limitations.”
Burke believes that her own story of struggle and survival instils confidence in her mentees, and she hopes that will also extend to those who reach out to WOW for support. “There are a lot of stigmas in the Black community against sexual assaults. It's more of a ‘don't ask, don't tell’ kind of thing. Even when you confide in a family member or friend about it, they’d be in denial: that either it didn't happen or that you're lying. In our community, it's not something that we like to talk about. So my experience of being a rape survivor gives other young women an opportunity to see that this (rape) happened to a woman, a Black woman, and she's able to open up and speak about it. It gives them the freedom to talk about their own experiences, and about any issue they are not comfortable with, in a safe space,” she says.
Banner photo: Monique Burke (Community Development ’14) introduced her non-profit organization, WOW Toronto, at an event organized by Good to be Good Foundation on March 5, 2023, in Toronto to mark the International Women’s Day.
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