This semester, I volunteered at the Monument Quilt Display in Baltimore and helped not only in setting up the event, but also in spreading awareness of the problems regarding the judicial process of sexual assault crimes in Baltimore.
The Monument Quilt is an ever-growing collection of accounts from victims of sexual violence and displays of support from their communities. The quilt is a national art exhibit that travels all of the country allowing multitudes of people to add to the display. The quilt serves as not only a display of public support for the victims of sexual violence, removing the stigma that they should be ashamed of themselves, but it also serves as a reminder of community accountability for the judicial process of sexual assault. So when I heard that this Baltimore display was going to be the largest display of the quilt yet, I knew I had to be involved.
The first goal of my activist project was to research the policies and laws surrounding sexual assault in Baltimore, so I could facilitate effective discussion on the topic at the event. In my research I found that the charges of sexual violence are separated into categories of rape or sexual offense. Rape involves vaginal intercourse, and Sexual Offense involves the forceful penetration of other areas. This seems harmful in that it creates an environment where only women can be technically “raped” causing boys or men who have experienced sexual violence to feel uneasy about coming forward, and causing women to be stereotyped as more fragile than men. Also, the charge for fourth degree sexual offense, which is the least severe sexual assault charge, is vaguely defined as “engaging in sexual contact without the other’s consent” according to state law. The vagueness of this definition allows both severe violations and minor ones to fall under this label and makes it very difficult to prove any wrongdoing. This specific knowledge makes me a much more effective volunteer when facilitating discussions with attendees.
The second goal of my activist project was to spread awareness of the event and increase the number of attendants. This is where I faced many obstacles. First, I planned to get the local radio show Maryland Morning to promote the event using my contacts with the producer, since I used to work on that very show; however, the producer informed me that there wasn’t any room in the schedule to fit in a segment. Second, I received an email from one of the event’s organizers Shameeka Smalling asking if I could get five to ten students from every group on campus to come out to the event, since I was a UMBC student and presumably had these connections. I grew incredibly anxious about disappointing the organizers because I had tried several times to email all the groups with which I was involved and received little to no response. How was I going to get volunteers from groups I didn’t even know?
I emailed Student Life and requested that they forward a mass email about the event to many of the on-campus groups, but eventually I decided that this might be too big of a goal for me to accomplish, so I changed my expectations. Activism isn’t about reaching hundreds of people, it’s just about doing something that contributes to making the world a better place, and I felt that I was already doing that by simply volunteering. I became much less stressed when I freed myself of the burden of endlessly promoting the event and although I didn’t push it anymore, my former boss at Maryland Morning told me that they had found time for a small segment about the event the day prior to the display, after all. You can listen to it here!
While this was a huge accomplishment, I reflected on my other pursuits in promoting the event and realized that they didn’t garner many results because of my impersonal tactics. For Maryland Morning, I contacted a colleague and a friend, and spoke to him personally about the event, while my emails to the other UMBC groups were just faceless blocks of text. In order to successfully promote something regarding an activist project, I think you need a more personal touch.
Connecting with people on a personal and friendly level is an aspect of activism that I had not realized existed until I finally got to the event on the morning of April 9th. I arrived around 7 a.m. at the designated building. Upon entering, I was surprised to find groups of people huddled around a small breakfast buffet exchanging stories and laughing. For some reason, I assumed that activists, especially ones dealing with such a serious subject, would be absolutely humorless. It was the opposite. Not only was the day full of satisfaction in bringing light to an important social issue, but it was also full of fun.
I helped set up the giant letters spelling “NOT ALONE” and the quilts around the main stage area with a small group of 4 or 5 people, who quickly became my friends. We would exchange jokes, talk about music, and laugh as one of the volunteers entertained us with her personal impression of Rihanna. The volunteers even had some creative freedom as to where squares of the quilt to place to create the prettiest picture for the eye. After we finished our section, we moved on to help other groups assemble the quilt on the street. When the set-up shift came to a close, I stayed a bit longer than what I had signed up for because the positive energy of the day was so infectious. I donned a staff t-shirt and walked around the display handing out pamphlets of information on the quilt, while also discussing policies regarding sexual assault. It was an incredibly rewarding experience and the personal interaction with people, even those just accidentally walking by the event, is an aspect of activism that will truly call me back to other pursuits.
Overall, I definitely accomplished my goal of gaining more knowledge on sexual assault policies in Baltimore, spreading awareness of the Monument Quilt Display, helping set up the event, and facilitating discussion with attendants to ensure that the messages of public support for sexual assault victims and the idea of community accountability are communicated effectively. This event was incredibly important in removing the stigma of shame associated with victims of sexual violence, while also encouraging people to garner information on the flaws of sexual assault laws in their communities, so the system can work to end these horrific crimes. I learned a lot, made friends, and discovered that activism can be a fun and stress-free activity. Before I did this project, I had an idea of activism as something that completely eclipses all other aspects of a person’s life. However, after this event, I was able to continue with the rest of my day as I always would, but with a more positive energy. Activism doesn’t have to fill a certain quota of time and it can be very fun due to the personal connections with other volunteers. I’m definitely an activist that loves to work in a group and I’m looking forward to my next opportunity to do that. To wrap up, here’s a selfie of me at the event!