“I remember when I slipped backwards on the spanish tile; you're almost dying multiple times; and it was dewey…two am.”
These are the words of Keri Potts, expounding her vivid memory of when she was sexually assaulted in 2008. She can remember it clear as day, enough to where she could draw the whole story; details of each and every excruciatingly painful moment. While on vacation in Rome Italy, one day she and a friend went to a cafe where they were introduced to a man named Marco. Marco and Potts agreed to grab some cocktails later that evening. One thing led to another, he tried getting her drunk, high, scare her...everything, but she wouldn’t give in to any of it. His seemingly charming attributes quickly shifted to repulsive behaviors. Once she realized where things were leading and the shift in the mood, she tried to escape and it was too late. Keri is an attractive tall 5’ 10” woman. Little did this perpetrator know, that her whole life she has stood in a position to protect herself and fight for others. He had chosen a victim that would fight against him relentlessly.
The tale of her heart-wrenching escape story consists of her jumping rooftops and scaling fire escapes, never to look back. Running for her life into the unknown, Potts entrusted every bit of her being. Knowing that one in four women can relate to this and are victims of sexual assault is even more bothersome and knowing that most women live in fear to prosecute or don’t have the means or ability to is even more bewildering. For years there has been a propitious cycle of abuse by people like Marco and they are everywhere among us, living their daily lives. Often, they are repeat offenders, never having been caught, always hunting their prey
Since Potts’s attack, she has devoted her life to helping sexual violence victims and advocating for change within the legal system. Having been on international soil the struggles were hard to prosecute, nearly impossible. It took Potts two years to finally win her case in which her perpetrator was given a prison sentence, although he never went to jail. The judge didn’t believe he was a danger to the community and would say things like, “Well he has never been arrested for this before,” which Potts remarked, “That’s because no one has caught him!” She was outraged. Two years of blood sweat, and tears...at times her battle felt hopeless. She dropped from a women’s size 8 to a size 0, experienced more stress than she knew was possible and emotionally was in so much pain. She wasn’t willing to give up, she only gained momentum.
“I am suffering here. I am in an international case, I can't keep this quiet.”
She did everything in her power to make sure Marco would suffer for his actions in hopes to save potential victims. Here we are, 13 years later and Potts continues to fight daily. She is passionate and strong-willed. Potts says she didn’t have a choice, she had to pursue charges. It is her right and he needed to suffer for his actions. It’s unjust. She continually fights to this day, learning all the layers of how preferential the legal system can be. Just one example, as Potts explained is as a white woman, she is the recipient of so much already where naively she had the belief the police would be there to help her. That wasn’t the case. That alone drove her. Even more so, she says she couldn’t imagine if she was a woman of color what would have happened.
“This problem has so many prongs, it's like an Octopus.”
So who is Keri Potts? Who is this strong woman who not only challenged the legal systems and was able to prosecute her perpetrator but has also been advocating for change every waking hour since? Through the many facets of Potts life, she has traveled the world but it all began in Long Island, NY. She recalls her mom saying “You should protect the kids that can’t protect themselves.” Being the tallest person in her grade, she was taught to protect, not to fight. Keri would stand up for herself and defend her peers, which as a young girl, she took seriously. She would be paired with the boys for gym and in athletics. She dominated and crushed them at everything and always found herself in an odd place. Traditionally the boys were supposed to rule sports but she was the best in class, which would leave them fuming. Potts has been a woman in this similar space, her whole life. Always running with the boys, testing their abilities, standing stronger; she has never been afraid to speak up. There has always been tension, a space of competitiveness, yet it’s where she thrives. It framed her for her future. She always felt the need to advocate for women.
“I always felt like i'm advocating for women, that I'm doing the hard thing. That, the hard things, if it makes you uncomfortable then I'm probably on the right track. If i'm gonna fight, it's probably the right thing because I'm built that way. So gender based violence...I didn’t have to have an attitude adjustment after I was attacked.”
She completed both her undergraduate (Magazine journalism) and masters (Public relations and management) degrees in upstate NY, at Syracuse University on a full academic and athletic scholarship (Volleyball). After, she began her career in sports and entertainment and went on to work at the NBA, then the NCAA and eventually at ESPN where she was for 17 years. She can’t speak highly enough about ESPN as an employer, as she became part of such a large network and felt as though she was part of a family, a strong team.
Initially, she was hired to work as the senior publicist for the NBA and NFL sectors. Words of advice Potts shares are, “It’s really good to get somewhere you can grow with that always keeps things challenging and that demands a high level.” All the years she was there, she never felt like she was at the same job. It was constantly shifting, and she played a crucial role in the development of a variety of programs. When ESPN launched their entertainment division, she was a pioneer, being responsible for all PR and publicity efforts. She loved the work, and the challenge but as the job became less fulfilling, ESPN created a new position for her, where she became Senior Director of communications for college sports which is ESPN’s largest portfolio. She absolutely loved it and was in this position for 7 years. This was a high pressure position, which she thrives under.
“I was so loyal to ESPN, I would go through a brick wall for them.”
The travelling demands, made her eventually feel tiresome of the position. It was hard to maintain a balanced life. She recalls a lot of stress. For the last 12 years of her employment, in her off time she was advocating in the fight for awareness of sexual assault. ESPN was just Potts day job. In 2010, Potts started a company called, A Fight Back Woman, Inc.
“A Fight Back Woman, Inc., provides quality, experience-based, trauma-informed and victim-centered best practices counsel to businesses and organizations on issues of sexual and interpersonal violence, tailored to their unique circumstances. It is not merely enough for a company to say that it is against these crimes, it is vital to truly understand them in order to combat them authentically and effectively.” - A Fight Back Woman Website
Since she is an expert in overseas prosecution and has experienced first hand the complexity of the judicial system, she realized she needed to take matters into her own hands and help relieve some of the fear victims experience. It’s like the name, A Fight Back Woman, If she isn’t going to, then who is.
“I need to sound the alarm, I need people to understand how these things work, especially overseas, when you come back here we don’t have any support, it's completely inadequate.”
At the time of her attack there was no organization in the United States that helps with overseas sexual assault. Being a media expert, she knows how to articulate to a variety of groups and being a journalist, she is skilled at writing and conveying her messages through public speaking. A Fight Back Woman does just this. Potts travels the nation, raising awareness on a variety of topics. In addition to a Fight Back Woman, she is a volunteer rape crisis counselor.
"I have spoken around the country on a variety of topics in and around sexual violence, healthy relationships and female empowerment, relying on my professional skill and my personal passion to educate others, change perceptions in a positive way and engender understanding.” - A Fight Back Woman Website
In her most recent role at ESPN, she eventually was granted a new position where she created a program known as, “The Language of Violence.” Potts developed a whole course structure where she trained 4000 employees with the first ESPN handbook ever written about sexual and intrapersonal violence. She taught employees a variety of topics and how to talk about sexual violence. ESPN has a platform that reaches millions of people. Every word said on air, and behind the scenes influences our communities. The majority of the population has never been taught how to properly talk about such matters, and when spoken on a public network, or as a celebrity that people follow, such wrong words can be very detrimental towards our culture.
“You have a platform where you are reaching millions of people. Talking sports, there is a lot of responsibility that goes with that.”
For some reason, 99% of Americans, and the world for that matter have never been taught about sexual violence. Potts says that a lot of corporate organizations are more comfortable talking about race and ethnicity but not sexual violence. Having been in such a high profile position she felt the need to utilize the ESPN platform and teach people.
“You can’t take an NFL guy and toss him on air and make him talk about domestic violence. We had on air talent that would talk about child molestation and they would say, ‘Well you know, it's bad but everyone gets a second chance.’ I was like, No no no they can’t get a second chance unless they’ve done X, Y, Z and even then they’ll probably offend again."
ESPN never felt like work for her but when it started to, she knew it was her time to leave. She could have stayed, from the outside looking in, the job looked amazing. It’s a high performance job that holds a lot of prestige.
“At what point am I going to sit there? Where I'm not being challenged? This isn’t really that hard anymore and now I'm blocking talent from coming up that I've trained and they’re all rockstars. I don’t believe you just sit and park it. Then I'm a hypocrite.”
Having this mindset enabled her to speak her mind, she would stand up at panels, conferences and board meetings. Remarking on the industry, Potts says, “It's about who you know and how long you can live.” This is why the sports industry, like many others, is lacking diversity, not just in gender but racially as well. There is a block for women and minorities to move up in the system.
“Intergenerational wealth is not a thing for people that aren’t white.”
Most people don’t have money assistance, trust funds and financial aid of any sort. They can’t wait around for 10 years to get to the position that they want. People end up leaving before they reach a status in which they get paid a liveable wage, it’s just not viable, especially with the uncertainty of advancement. Therefore the system perpetuates itself. Potts says she knew it was time to leave when a higher profile in college football innocently asked her how her day was and she responded with, “I’m exhausted, you know, dismantling the patriarchy is really exhausting.” She says that the workplace is built from a male perspective. Which is completely true. Most companies were founded by men, and are run by men since it wasn’t until recently that women have been allowed to even hold these types of positions. Even gender based inequality in most companies is taught from a male perspective.
Potts says, “A career sometimes is just trying to figure what fits.” You need to anticipate and read the signs, listen to the universe. You have to ask yourself, is this my path? If she was content, then to put it simply, she would have been content. For years, she loved ESPN since her whole life she has been involved in sports and she had a passion for it but after everything that happened to her, the attack, and the more she got involved in fighting for violence against women her values shifted and it was hard for her to continue to work in sports. She was sick of being asked questions like, “What’s it like being a woman in sports,” where she really wanted to be asked, “What’s it like working in sports.” The inequality is so clear.
We look at women as second class citizens, we’re not mentioned in the constitution...by design, they said men...they didn’t say women. Normally, a document would say ‘people’ but they picked to say men and they did say women. Everything flows from that here. We are second class. We didn’t even get to vote for a long time, we didn't get to have jobs or own property, we couldn't even have a credit card! Ruth Bator Ginsburg made it so we could have a credit card in the 60’s. And then people of color are even further back. It's disingenuous, they know it, look at all the boards. We're digging our way out, (phew!) patriarchy is a bitch.”
Potts was accepted to University College London (UCL) for their graduate program in Gender Society and Representation. She was all set to go, gave her notice at ESPN, had been training her team for her exit, then then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The graduate program came to a halt and since she had already started her exit from the company she wasn’t going to step backwards. Potts found a job working at The Institute for Women's Policy Research where she was the Vice President of External Affairs. She was there for almost a year and would execute initiatives through IWPR to be a voice in the economic security and well-being of women and families. She worked directly with congress amongst many other economic policy leaders.
“We win economic equity for all women and eliminate barriers to their full participation in society. As a leading national think tank, we build evidence to shape policies that grow women’s power and influence, close inequality gaps, and improve the economic well-being of families.” - IWPR’s mission
The shift going from corporate to non profit, and during a pandemic had its challenges. It’s her second career, the one she has heart in. Recently, Potts decided to leave IWPR to pursue different work as she continues to desire work that challenges her and lets her grow. She misses working specifically with gender based violence and since she was unable to go to school, she is enrolled in a bunch of training programs. Potts isn’t sure what the future holds, and that’s ok with her. Potts says it’s crucial to be able to pivot. If something doesn’t work in one direction, pivot in the other. Pivots in life don’t mean failure, they mean new beginnings and opportunity.
“I had a friend that said, ‘Just keep your legs going and when an opening comes you will be at full speed’.”
Potts had been in Atlanta for a number of years and is now finding comfort in her new residence of Washington, DC. Having resided in NYC for a number of years, DC reminds her a bit of the energy and spontaneity of it. She enjoys the vivacity and the buzz, there is no other city that she can think of that has the sense of possibility. Being in her 40’s she is not ready to just sit in the suburbs. Potts is a professional, a socialite. Having never wanted to start a family, she is heavily devoted to her career. She is proud of what she does, the difference she can make and the person who she is. Being around other people that share her same drive as she is important.
“Being around the folk. There’s an energy that comes off these people, people go, ‘Oh, they’re ambitious’. No, these are driven people, they have goals, they want to do important things. That’s what I want to do...I want to do tough, important hard things and being around folks that do that is probably to my benefit.”
The constant challenge that other people can bring is important, at ESPN she had that. Atlanta has a lot going on but not the intensity she is looking for. DC speaks her language in a way, she thrives under pressure, it keeps her sharp. Potts looks at her career as giving her purpose, power and passion. She learns from it, gains energy and keeps her creativity moving and will continue fighting for the injustices of the world.
She attributes being an athlete her whole life to this. In athletics you are naturally taught courage and how to lift yourself up. It’s something that becomes inherent, you learn what failure is, and you are taught the benefits of endurance and strength both mentally and physically. Something that Pott’s mother has always said is, “To thine own self, be true.” She recognizes the courage in this. It’s hard to be true to yourself. You need to be able to trust yourself and listen to yourself. Society may tell you that a path of wealth and fame is the most ideal avenue but maybe it’s helping people and sometimes that doesn’t come with much money.
“I bet on myself all the time. I know what I am capable of, I have proven it. You can't ask others to bet on you if you can’t bet on yourself. That means taking the plunge and being able to walk away.”
It’s ok to feel defeated, but you have to get yourself back up. It can be terrifying. It has taken Potts a long time to be able to trust herself and bet on herself. Being a single woman and an introvert, she has learned how to become comfortable in her own skin. She says it’s all about discovering who you are. There is so much power in that. Being able to sit with yourself. Now that she does, it gives her so much confidence.
“You know, the headspace of survival I probably had a few other times. Those moments where you are just so scared, that you kinda latch on like, ‘I can do this, I can do this, I can do this,’ and I'm glad because there are so many people that say, ‘I can't do this I can't do this.”
Back to that horrible night in Rome, Italy. The night of the assault. In her escape towards freedom Potts had entered survival mode. A mind space where you just focus on the now, in the present and just get through whatever is at hand. Now, daily, Potts gives survival mode a rebranding, she gives it clarity and longevity. Survival is the propensity of something to continually exist, taking the necessary tools needed to be successful at life. Potts is always on the hunt, collectively gathering information in efforts for all women to survive and to create a stronger environment for solidarity.
“As long as I am doing my part, which is shaking the trees; I don't feel as vulnerable to the shifts of the universe.”
Q & A
Q: What does the word Moxxi mean to you?
“Hootspa and gumption, we say a lot of Yiddish in Long Island. Spark and Spunk.”
Q: Any mentors?
Q: What are some words you have for women who are in a sexual violence situation?
"First, it's not your fault. There is literally nothing you are doing that is causing this. Second, there’s a lot of people that want to help and can give you options. I understand it's really hard and we want to help you understand your options and give you the support you need, and whatever that looks like.”
”It's so horrifying what we do to women and girls. Rape is just always on the table. It can happen tomorrow, it can happen the next day; it's a psychological jail.”
“Whatever is right for you will float to the top in that moment. There’s no right way, whatever is best for you you will know in that moment and not a second sooner."
Q: Are there any quotes that inspire you?
Christopher Marlowe: “My mind to me a kingdom is; Such perfect joy therein I find.” Potts says it’s about being comfortable in your own skin. Sitting with yourself, and addressing you. Literally discovering the joy of who you are and then just stopping.
Queen Elizabeth I: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman but the heart and stomach of a king.” Basically meaning, this is just casing and is not a limitation. You see it as a limitation but who I am inside will come out."
Q: How do you drink your coffee?
“I’m a huge embarrassment.” Cream, 4 Splenda, cinnamon. Also, she can drink pippin hot coffee so fast she can be done before she gets around the block! Got to drink it the way you like it, right?
Q: What does coffee mean to you?
She has an absolute love for coffee shops, with their anchor in their communities and the connections they make. She finds a woman owned cafe in every town she lives in.
WHAT ARE SOME OF KERRI’S OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS THAT WE COULDN’T FIT WITHOUT WRITING A NOVEL?
Pathways to Safety International - She is president of the board. They are a US - based organization providing comprehensive services to Americans sexually assaulted or abused abroad.
Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center - was a volunteer victims advocate
Grady Memorial Hospital - volunteer rape crisis counselor 2014 -2017
#METOO abroad - president
Check out her 2018 TEDx Centennial Park Women - "Speaking Up is Showing Up for Women" talk. Click here for video
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