Sexual assault is a hot topic right now. We have the #MeToo movement, brought about by Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct in the workplace, as well as a slew of other movements addressing the same issue. Just this week, Bill Cosby was found guilty on all three counts of aggravated indecent assault and could be facing up to 30 years in prison. These movements have permeated popular culture, at times becoming the focal point of major broadcasting stations, but somehow they have been unable to change, or even shift, the culture in higher education.
So many students are affected by sexual violence. With a problem this large, we should make it our mission to protect them. We should arm them with information, not only about how to prevent these things from happening, but also about what to do in the event of a violation. Where do you turn if you were assaulted? What do you do if it happens to a friend? Are other students facing the same problems and, if so, how do they feel about it? I wanted to address these questions in my activism project, and I believe I was able to do so.
The project was a panel and discussion titled “Coffee and Conversation: Beyond Take Back the Night”. Take Back the Night is an annual event at UMBC, which empowers people to speak out against sexual violence through a speak-out, a march, and art. It’s a well respected event and the turnout is usually large, but what happens afterwards? People stop discussing it. Once April ends, students and faculty are focused on final exams and closing out the year. Beyond Take Back the Night was supposed to continue the conversation and introduce the community to different types of involvement. It was a panel consisting of an undergraduate student, a graduate student, UMBC’s Title IX investigator, an entrepreneur, and a community organizer from Baltimore.
The panel would be asked a few premeditated questions, and then the audience would get to ask questions as well. Eventually, it became less scripted and more of a conversation. This was exactly what was needed. Students were able to ask specific questions about Title IX processes, ways to report, and how to navigate the system. They were able to hear students reflect on their own activism, and able to engage with community members from the City who work day and night to protect survivors and those who are most susceptible to violence. About twenty people were present, and were able to ask questions.
We ran into a few obstacles along the way. Compensation for panelists became a problem, because we didn’t know where the funds would come from. We were eventually able to draw up contracts and get the University to provide them with funds, but, if I were to do it all over again, I would have discussed compensation much earlier. Advertisement was difficult. We had planned everything perfectly, as far as logistics were concerned, yet somehow forgot to advertise the event. We had told our friends, who had told their friends, but that wasn’t enough. That afternoon, we advertised more heavily. Had we begun earlier, the turnout could have been better.
Many things went smoothly. Our team consisted of six students. We were all passionate about the issue and showed up to contribute whenever and wherever we could. We partnered with the Women’s Center, and were able to form bonds with our peers. The panelists were diverse – we had students, university employees, and community organizers alike. There were many opportunities for questions and bonding over shared experiences, frustrations, and passions. Overall, it was a good event.
This activism is important, because we don’t discuss sexual assault enough. Students face this at every turn, especially first-year students, transgender students, and women. It’s widely known, yet we rarely confront the issue head-on. It’s important that we continue the discussion and equip our students with the information and tools they need to protect themselves and their peers. It’s our duty as students to build sexual assault prevention and survivor support into the foundations of our culture. We can no longer rely on the university to that. That is why I’m so glad that the planning team for this project consisted solely of students. We were able to build this from the ground with our own resources. There’s beauty in that.
This project has shown me that activism can be done anywhere with anyone. I’m just a student, yet I was able to put together this entire event with the help of my undergraduate and graduate peers. We were able to form connections with individuals from all over the university and from Baltimore City. I learned that activism is about relationships, and that my role is to make connections between people and provide resources. I’m not a creative person. It was difficult for me to come up with creative and insightful questions. I had a hard time with things that fell outside of structure, discipline, and logistics. But I am good at planning and convening. That’s where I can excel in activism, and I truly believe this played out in my project. I’m slowly learning that everyone has their place in the revolution. We all have skills that contribute to creating positive change in our communities.