We can’t back down.
Sexual assault has been an issue about which I have been deeply concerned for the last four years. I’ve been professionally and personally involved in a variety of efforts to tackle this rampant and complex problem. Throughout this work, I’ve always struggled with the question “what is the most effective, meaningful, and impactful avenue for change in this arena?” That is until last month, when I joined colleges and students from around the country to participate in the first National Leadership Institute — which was the first multi-disciplinary collaborative of 20 colleges and universities across the country dedicated to addressing gender-based violence on campus. Then, I felt as though I’d found my answer.
Growing up, I was never afraid to speak out. Calling out people on inappropriate and unfair actions or words was a practice embedded in my high school’s student culture. But when I got to college, challenging other students who often made misogynistic comments made me feel isolated. I no longer had a network of peers to back me up and my feminist remarks went against the campus’ social norms.
In my second semester of college, a friend introduced me to an all-female identified peer education group that gave presentations on sexual assault and survivor support. I felt more at home with that group within the first five minutes of our first meeting than I had in the previous six months I had spent on campus. I started giving presentations to fraternities, sororities, and clubs based on my own perspective as a survivor and soon realized how much more receptive my audience was to an educational model rather than a ‘call out’ model. I then understood that my previous approach to expressing my ideals — calling people out when I disagreed with them — made people feel attacked rather than welcomed into challenging a culture that promotes gender-based violence. I saw so many more light bulbs go off in these audiences during my first few presentations than I had the entire time I publicly called out others in high school and the beginning of college. When I began to supplement my peer education work with collaborative efforts involving other partners on campus and in the community, it finally felt like I was moving the needle.
In May 2015, I was invited to serve on the steering committee that was tasked with creating the framework and curriculum for the National Leadership Institute based on this work. I was attracted to the project for a variety of reasons – the most overwhelming of which was the fact that Futures Without Violence, the Avon Foundation, the University of Virginia (UVA), and Harvard University’s Gender Violence Program were committing to a systemic calling in through this college-specific sexual violence prevention program. The Institute’s collaborative would mark a massive expansion of a community of higher education faculty, administration, student leaders and campus safety representatives committed to preventing sexual violence beyond their own campuses.
At the National Leadership Institute, I realized how lucky I had been to witness the transformative work that occurs when students, administrators, counselors, student affairs professionals, and school representatives from multiple disciplines sit together and operate as partners in the movement. It also reminded me of my own journey discovering the power of education as a radical change agent in creating a cultural shift against sexual violence. It was inspiring to see participants’ willingness to collaborate, openly ask questions, and honestly admit where they had opportunities to learn and fill in the gaps. Many schools mentioned that they were struggling with student engagement and were receptive to the idea of involving students in the work on the front end, rather than just including them in the audience. Each school included student representatives in their curriculum and were committed to working with them on their college action plan following the Institute as part of their Avon Foundation-funded work. This experience only emphasized to me that in order for our whole culture to shift, we need to take a multifaceted, educational approach, that allows us to address both the needs of the survivors and communities vulnerable to future violence.
But beyond revelations about doing this work itself, I had a personal revelation, too. I found my voice and realized that my strengths lie in pushing for student involvement, coordinating our student advocacy coalition, and delivering presentations — and realized that I therefore needed to start working with administrators whose strengths lie in disseminating policy information and supporting survivors that walk through their doors as well as program coordinators who can implement our bystander intervention program.
I saw plenty of others have similar revelations across the conference. It was clear that each person was realizing that recognizing their own strengths while playing to the strengths of others was a necessary part of the larger puzzle. My concern for finding the right solution slowly dissolved as I realized I had found a way to implement many solutions at the same time.
Doing impactful work is not easy, but with the right resources, mentors, and collection of strengths, it can be done. At the Institute, I saw students and professionals alike become empowered to engage in different methods of change – from social media engagement, to peer education, and providing trauma-informed care. Of course, having team members that keep their colleagues and institutions accountable to doing this work from an anti-racist, intersectional framework is also crucial.
In the context of an environment in which schools have (rightfully) been called out for taking a light stance on campus sexual assault. the National Leadership Institute is more than a stepping stone, but rather a mechanism to get educated, involved, and call-in everyone else — including those who are the easiest to call out. Our work is hard, but it needs to continue. We need people at universities and colleges across the country to play to their strengths and work together to pull people in to change the narrative of gender-based violence on college campuses.