A Conversation with Project Consent Founder, Sara Li

After struggling with anxiety and depression, 17-year-old Sara Li had the idea for Project Consent.

It all began as a simple Instagram page that invited people to write the word “NO” on them to symbolise the fight against sexual assault. Fast forward to today, and Project Consent is a global, non-profit movement that serves as a community for survivors of sexual assault, driven to make a difference and change the narrative around consent.

Sara has a staff of 40+ people, contributes to MTV, Elite Daily and Thought Catalog, and was one of the leading partners in the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign.. She is a hugely inspiration example of what happens when turn your pain into motivation.

Here, Sara and I have a candid conversation about creating positivity in today's climate, the pressure of being a public figure at a young age and more. 

Hi Sara! Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and why you do what you do? What drives you?

Hi! Thanks for having me. I’m a sophomore at the University of Kansas where I’m studying Strategic Communications and Creative Writing. I’m the director of Project Consent, a sexual assault awareness and prevention program that I started in 2014. I’m also a writer; I freelance op-eds and short stories.

I would say that I’m driven by optimism. I believe in better days and good people and I want to be part of that.

I’m seriously impressed by your career trajectory so far. You started Project Consent when you were just 17. Can you talk about the moment you decided to stop being an observer, and start using your voice? What was the catalyst? How did you turn your pain into motivation?

Thank you, that’s really sweet to say! It’s been a wild ride. I’ve always had a strong personality — which is just a polite way of saying I’m headstrong, but in an effective, over-achiever kind of way. It’s strange to be applauded for…standing up for what’s right? I don’t know, I think about this a lot. Whether you’re 17 or 70, anyone can be a good person.

I think it’s important for people to know that none of this was planned. Even when Project Consent first began, I never thought that I’d ever go into the field of humanitarian work.

I don’t think I would’ve started a non-profit to combat sexual assault if it didn’t happen to me personally. Am I happy that it took something terrible to unlock that part of me? Absolutely not. But that’s the funny thing about choice: when it’s taken from you, you’re the only one who can take it back. There’s a lot of power in choosing to make something good out of something bad.

Something that’s helped me a lot is not making ‘victim’ a part of my identity. Everyone is a victim of something: abuse, depression, heartbreak, neglect, etc. I look at victimhood as a phase — an inevitable one because suffering is universal— because you do recover, eventually. And it doesn’t happen overnight, trust me. But I have worked too hard to be strong and capable and smart to just be a victim of someone else’s actions. Once I came to terms with that, I was able to move on and create something that I hoped would help others.

What have the pressures of being a public figure taught you? How has the experience shaped who you are and changed your perspective?

I don’t know what’s weirder: accepting that I’m a public figure or accepting that others think I’m a public figure.

I was 17 years old when a feature in NYLON put me on the map (or whatever you want to call it). My friends would make jokes like “Sara’s famous” and I’d laugh them off because I was a kid who knew I was a kid. I wasn’t in the mindset of thinking myself as a public figure and yeah, I miss that blissful ignorance. Your reputation is always bigger than you are, so it’s very surreal to have people assume that I am exactly the person they read or hear about. I would love to be the girl who can do anything and is always on top of it, but I’m not.

I think there’s a lot of people who can take being a public figure in stride. I just wasn’t ready. When you’re in your late teens and early 20s, you’re still trying to figure out who you are and what you’re capable of. When I hit my late teens and early 20s, I felt like everyone already had this idea of who I was before I did. It didn’t give me a lot of room to make mistakes, to be young and stupid, because I knew who I had to be. Now I’m afraid of disappointing other people as well because when you are a public figure, to whatever degree, you’re constantly wondering what people are thinking about you. I know the worst things that I think about myself, so I try not to go down that hole.

I’m been trying to embrace total transparency a lot more. There’s a lot of factors that I can’t control — half of what I say is edited out for clarity because I ramble so much — but I do try to be really, really honest about who I am. And if people don’t like me, then, well, I understand. I’m a work in progress. My progress is just more visible than most people’s.

How has being in the spotlight affected your relationships? In other words, what is it like to befriend or date you?

Thankfully, none of my close friends really care. Like, they do care, but it’s in a “it’s cool what you’re doing, but you’re still really annoying” type of way. My friends are probably more used to it than I am. I’m very lucky to have a handful of people that I consider family; they see me at my worst and best and in-between and still want me around. But it’s only that: a handful. I’m a lot more careful about who I trust and form attachments to now more than I was a year ago. You never want to think that your friendships have an expiration date, but things change and yeah, it hurts a lot. But the people who genuinely care about you — not your achievements or anything else — will be there no matter what and I have that. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have that.

That being said, I can also admit that dating isn't a huge priority to me right now. College is either the worst or best time because everything’s so transitional. Katy Bellotte has a really good quote that I’m going to borrow: “It’s either love or a lesson.” So far, I’m learning a lot about what I do and don’t want. For that alone, I’m very thankful to every guy who’s ever given me that: from the only boyfriend I’ve ever loved to the one that I didn’t see coming, to whoever else. I should probably send them all a Hallmark card.

But whoever I do end up with, I want them to be so enthralled with their career that mine will never overshadow who they are or what they do. The best part of someone should never be their significant other, it should be their passion. I know that the great story of my life won’t be about a boy so if anyone’s thinking about marrying me for the spotlight, they’re going to be massively disappointed.

At a time where the world can seem like a dark, somewhat hopeless place, I imagine you, through your experience with Project Consent, have also seen the best of humanity? How has your world view changed since starting the movement?

It’s given me an extremely high tolerance for emotional toll. It might seem bleak to say, but after working in the field of sexual assault, human trafficking, and mental health, it takes a lot to shake me. I like to think it makes me a good person to talk to about heavy things. I’m a good shoulder to cry on; I give a heck of a pep talk if needed. It’s more or less the whole reason why I started all of this.

We get messages from people around the world, sharing their experiences and what Project Consent means to them. There’s a lot of pain in these stories, but there’s also a lot of recovery. Anyone can get through anything because human beings are so much more durable than we think. I hold onto that.

Project Consent is a lot of things, but above all, it’s about overcoming. And people are doing exactly that. How do you not find that anything but optimistic?

What are your hopes for after you graduate? How do you plan to balance fighting for meaningful causes with making a living?

I’m so ready to graduate. I’m currently working on putting together a book of all the short stories that I’ve written because that was originally what I wanted to be: an author. I want to continue doing humanitarian work; ideally, I’d love to work with the United Nations. There are some smaller passions that I want to pursue as well: coding, cancer research, etc. I have weird interests all over the place, so I don’t have a “dream job” — I just have a collection of projects that I want to work on over my lifetime and I’m very happy with that.

Lastly, what would you say to anyone who wants to “change the world”, but feels insignificant or overwhelmed by the amount of charitable causes that deserve their attention? Why should they start anyway?

If you don’t like something, do something about it. Giving your support to a cause doesn’t have to a lifelong commitment. You don’t need to do something monumental to make a difference. If everyone in the world just tried a little bit harder to be a better person, I think we would have a better world.

No one is insignificant.

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