Writer: Jane Schorer Meisner
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Before Vanessa McNeal even understood the meaning of “unique,” the spunky little girl knew that’s what she was. She confided as much to the grandmother who raised her and her three siblings in Davenport after their mother abandoned them and their father assumed a status of “around, but not involved.”
“I remember when I was little, I would tell my grandma that there was something different about me—in a good way,” says McNeal, now 24. “It was almost like I knew I had gifts before I actually knew what they were.”
Abused as a child and sexually assaulted at age 15, McNeal somehow saw those life challenges as opportunities to give a voice to people with similar experiences. “I don’t think my story is rare,” she says. “But my outcome is different. So many people invested in me. I wouldn’t want to waste that, and I wouldn’t want to lose sight of that.”
McNeal earned a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University and a master’s in social work from the University of Northern Iowa. She moved to Des Moines in May and is now building a career as a filmmaker and public speaker.
“My films are social justice-related, so I use a lot of my education when speaking about the films and when I screen them,” she says.
Working with PLVTO Pros film professionals, she produced a short film called “We Are Survivors,” with stories of survivors of sexual violence, including one male. “Sexual violence doesn’t discriminate based on gender, sexual orientation or race,” McNeal says. “One in six men experiences sexual violence before age 18, but men aren’t given a voice in the conversation.”
McNeal’s documentary, “The Voiceless,” features stories of men who endured sexual violence and explores taboos, stereotypes and the effects of their experience. The film has been screened throughout the United States and internationally, including on many college campuses.
In her speaking engagements, McNeal shares her personal story and philosophy. “I speak to a lot of women’s groups on how to be a leader, about empowerment and how I got into being an entrepreneur,” she says.
McNeal’s experience brought her to the attention of Emily J. Shields, executive director of Iowa Campus Compact, an association of college and university presidents that seeks to foster civic engagement among students. Shields says McNeal was selected to be the keynote speaker for the association’s inaugural Iowa Civic Action Academy Nov. 3-4 at Grand View University.
“Her story will help [college students] see that they can make a difference using their unique skills and talents in creative ways,” Shields says. “She has taken something she loves and is talented at—filmmaking—and used it to demonstrate the power of personal story.
“It takes a lot of courage to talk about the trauma of sexual assault in such a public way,” Shields adds. “Not only has she done that, but she has used her skills to help others tell their stories as well and elevate some of the most hidden issues in our society. I admire her for this courage and for her tenacity in making sure their words are heard.”
Angie Kendall, director of development and communications at the Child Abuse Council in Moline, Ill., says the audience at its annual fundraiser was “incredibly engaged” when McNeal spoke there.
“They responded emotionally and found her inspiring,” Kendall says. “She was honest, brave, vulnerable and passionate. She is a talented speaker, passionate advocate and fierce woman who will effect great change.”
McNeal says discussing sexual violence is “heart-rending and hard to talk about, but necessary. … I am exactly where I’m supposed to be when I’m speaking.”