A rabble rouser to watch: Meet Jessica Bonilla-Damptey, director of the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area).
A rabble rouser to watch: Meet Jessica Bonilla-Damptey, director of the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area). Credit: Courtesy: Jessica Bonilla-Damptey Credit: Courtesy: Jessica Bonilla-Damptey

Each year, we here at rabble ask our readers: “What are the organizations that inspire you? Who are the people leading progressive change? Who are the rabble rousers to watch?” Every year, your responses introduce us to a new group of inspiring activists. This is our ‘rabble rousers to watch’ series. Follow our rabble rousers to watch here

Our ‘rabble rousers to watch’ list of 2023 continues to grow with Jessica Bonilla-Damptey. Bonilla-Damptey is the director of the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area). She’s been involved in crisis support since 2008. We spoke with Bonilla-Damptey about her work with survivors and how she first got involved in activism.

A conversation with Jessica Bonilla-Damptey

Editors’ note: This interview has been edited for length.

rabble.ca: Can you tell us about the work that you’re doing with your organization?

Jessica Bonilla-Damptey: I work at the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area) – SACHA. I joined the organization as director in 2019. However, I have worked as a volunteer in various capacities (Crisis Support Line Volunteer, Take Back the Night, International Women’s Day and events tabling) with SACHA since 2008.

SACHA is a feminist, non-profit, community-based organization that provides supports to survivors of all genders aged 16 and older, who have experienced sexualized violence at any point in their lives. This work has been done in Hamilton since 1975. 

We work to end violence and oppression through education, advocacy, outreach, coalition building, community partnerships, and activism. The services include individual and group counselling for survivors of sexual violence and sex-trafficking, public education and prevention, 24-hour telephone support, chat and text line, hospital and police accompaniment and specialized outreach to racialized communities and newcomers through the Diverse Communities Outreach Program.

It is my responsibility to ensure that the work we are doing follows SACHA’s vision, mission, values and policies with an ongoing commitment to an intersectional feminist, anti-racist, anti- oppressive framework.

My work allows me the opportunity to sit on various tables in Hamilton, including the Sisters in Spirit Committee, Woman Abuse Working Group, Hamilton Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition Steering Committee, The Just Recovery Hamilton Coalition, Sexual Assault Community Review Team, and the Executive of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres.

At the onset of the pandemic, my role at SACHA focused on how to ensure sexual assault prevention and support for survivors in Hamilton was included in conversations around a just recovery in the city. I participated in the development of the Just Recovery policy document that provided the City of Hamilton over 150 recommendations to implement to create a just Hamilton for all residents.

rabble.ca: How did you first get involved in activism?

JBD: My parents taught me by example that it is important to be involved in community, to cultivate community, to show love and respect through action, with and alongside community, that children have a role to play in community and should be involved and to never forget where I come from.

My parents are from El Salvador, they had to leave their homeland because of persecution and threats to their lives during the civil war in the early 1980s. While I was growing up, my parents involved my siblings and I in all of their organizing and community work. Whether it was supporting efforts to stop the war in El Salvador, participating in Labour Day parades in Hamilton, performing at events through “Junior Akatun” — our children’s folkloric dance group. 

rabble.ca: What does being nominated as a ‘rabble rouser to watch’ mean to you?

JBD: I’m so grateful and really humbled. This nomination allows me to elevate the work done at SACHA to support survivors, as well as the work done by the committees mentioned above who are actively working to create a Hamilton that is safe and supportive for everyone.

Being nominated is also a testament to my parents, my in-laws, my partner, my babies, family and all the community members, elders, youth and kids who I have ever worked alongside and I get to say, “Esto es por ustedes y para ustedes, para nostroxs y los que vienen. (This is because of you and for you, for us and those who are yet to come).”

rabble.ca: How do you take care of yourself and find the drive to keep going?

JBD: My drive to keep going are Antonio, Itzáe, Neto, Selena, Emilio, Miguel, Elijah, Ezra, Emiliana, Camilo, Maya, Lucia, Leo, Eduardo, babies and all of the kids everywhere. 

They and we (adults, elders, youth) deserve to be free from violence and oppression, to be free and be happy, to thrive, to experience joy and love. My drive to keep going comes from the support of my partner Kojo, my parents Samuel and Selma, Reuben and Patience, my siblings, my friends, my co-workers and community. They take care of me and allow me to take care of myself. 

I can’t mention everyone but the ways I am surrounded by love is amazing.Also, boundaries are very important. Communicating what I have capacity for and being heard/respected is an important thing I have learned.

rabble.ca: What is one goal you have in the next year?

JBD: As a new executive member of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres and the director of SACHA, one goal for the next year is to keep raising awareness of the work we do to support survivors and the real need that exists in communities for increased funding for sexual assault centres.

I want community members to know they can reach out for support if they are a survivor of sexual violence. I want family, friends and helping professionals to know they too can reach out for support if they are supporting a survivor. It is so important for survivors to know that they are believed and are not alone.

rabble.ca: What do you wish people knew about the organizing you do?

JBD: The work that we do at SACHA is important and hard work. I want people to know that Sexual Assault Centres (SAC) do amazing work in community and they need support to receive increased, sustainable funding. Waitlists for counselling services are at an all-time high, crisis support lines are seeing dramatic increases in calls and length of calls, requests for public education workshops and trainings continue to rise, the need and the demand are great everywhere. 

Survivors deserve access to free, trauma-informed, survivor-centered, timely supports. I invite you to look up your local SAC to find out what they do in your community, see how you can get involved and please write to your MPP to advocate for increased, sustainable funding. #WeBelieveSurvivors

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...