Elizabeth Smart never set out to become a figure recognized worldwide for fighting sexual violence and kidnapping — but 20 years after her abduction in Utah, that’s where she finds herself.
We all hear the phrase: “One person can make a difference,” Smart notes, “but in my mind, that person was never me, it was always somebody else.”
A natural introvert, Smart says she found her voice — and her purpose — little by little with each opportunity to speak out until it became a part of her identity.
“And so as I met all of these other survivors and heard their stories and heard what they’ve been through, it made me think: ‘Maybe I can be that one person. And maybe I can do something more than just live my life the way that I thought it would go,’” Smart said during an interview at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in downtown Salt Lake City.
Sunday marks 20 years since Smart, then 14 years old, was abducted from her home in the Federal Heights neighborhood of Utah’s capital city by Brian David Mitchell.
When asked how she handles each anniversary of that life-altering event, she said: “It’s just a day, and really, it has the same amount of hours and seconds as yesterday and tomorrow will have.”
“For me, my best way of celebrating it, or acknowledging it, is living another day,” she said.
When asked how she handles the toll of sharing her story through her advocacy work and hearing those of others, she said she unwinds in the same ways as many an introvert — watching lighthearted TV at home.
“So I’m not always the most up-to-date person on current popular crime documentaries, or really serious, heavy violent shows. I’m usually maybe more of a predictable, less exciting person outside of this space. I’m perfectly happy just to sit and watch reruns of the ‘British Bake Off,’ forever,” she said.
This year, she announced the joining of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation with anti-human trafficking nonprofit Malouf Foundation and kicked her efforts against human trafficking into full gear.
Smart said the experiences of those who suffer human trafficking resonated with her as it’s not that different from what she experienced.
“I wasn’t sold to other people, but I was kidnapped with the intention of being raped, with the intention of being a sexual object. And so I felt compassion for these victims who were being raped, possibly dozens of times a day, for someone else’s gain. It just, it broke my heart,” Smart said.
Her advocacy has focused largely on preventing sexual assault and abuse more than kidnapping itself.
“Kidnapping is there, don’t get me wrong. It is 100% there, but sexual violence and exploitation is just so prolific that more needs to be done, and so I typically spend more of my energy on that topic. And human trafficking is right in that topic,” she said.
When asked whether she believes the #MeToo movement made a difference in increasing awareness about sexual violence and understanding for survivors, she said she believes it “empowered a lot of survivors to find the confidence to just come forward and say it out loud or write it down.”
The movement also created a “camaraderie” between survivors and victims, and helped open people’s eyes “to realize, ‘Wow, this is actually really big. This is actually bigger than I ever thought it was.’”
But Smart called the movement a “starting place” and noted “there’s always room for improvement.”
When asked what she hopes our society will look like when her three children grow up, she quipped: “I hope I’m still alive by then. Just because I won’t have like stressed myself into the grave for them.”
The mother said she hopes her girls “are never afraid to speak up if something happens. I hope they’re never afraid to say something, period. I hope that they always know that I will believe them, that I’ll always have their back, I’ll always have their corner.”
If they get into trouble at school for fighting and she learns they were actually defending themselves, “and they get suspended or expelled, we’re going to Hawaii for that,” Smart said.
“I want them to know that I support them in that, and that it’s not OK for anyone to hurt them or make them feel uncomfortable. I want them to know that they have rights, and their rights should be respected. Their boundaries should be respected. So I hope that for my children, but I hope that for other people’s children as well.”
Smart added that she’s “so grateful for all of the love and support I’ve received over the years,” and pleaded for people to continue caring and learning about the issue of sexual violence.
She encouraged people to visit iamonwatch.org for human trafficking prevention tools. The Elizabeth Smart Foundation also offers trauma-informed self-defense training, Smart Defense, which is offered in studios and online.
“There is no fail safe in this world, there’s no guarantee that something won’t happen, but we can give ourselves more tools. We can equip ourselves a little bit better than we formerly have done,” Smart said.