Welcome to Activism 101, where organizers and campus leaders share their stories of success and their secrets to achieving it. We’ve launched our Campaign to End Sexual Violence, and we want you to have all the resources you can get. That’s why we’re bringing you a series of posts devoted to the campaign toolkit, and making it as successful as possible.
Almost a year ago exactly, I started working on an endeavor I was pretty sure would never be actualized: I wanted to mandate sexual assault prevention education for every incoming student at the University of Maryland.
It was the fall of my senior year – meaning that, with less than six months of college left, I had embarked on quite the project without a lot of time to see it through. I enlisted the help of friends, allies, professors, and administrators to try and get it done. We made some mistakes. We had quite a few setbacks. But in the end, we made it happen: two weeks ago, the University Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of my proposal.
If you are sitting there thinking, “Hey, my school should have mandatory sexual assault prevention education!” then my first response is, “Yes, it should! And YES, you can make it happen!” And here is my wish for you, dear reader: That you learn from my mistakes and triumphs, and that it’s a bit easier for you than it was for me. So, without further ado, here’s my roadmap for mandating sexual assault prevention education at your university or college. It might not be the best way of doing it, but it’s the way I did it, and I hope it gives you and your fellow activists some ideas of how to get started.
A note before I start: It’s important for activists to know that the law is on your side with this project. The Campus SaVE Act, a provision of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization, requires every university to have some kind of mandatory sexual violence education program. This Act passed in the spring of 2013, several months after I proposed my mandate. Schools have to have this education in place by 2014, so administrators at your university are likely developing programs already. Make sure you get a seat at the table during their implementation!
- Enlist all the help you can get. I was very lucky to have a huge support system of friends who were already educated on sexual violence and eager to help. They became instrumental in spreading the word about my proposal, garnering support and seeing it through. The bottom line is, you can’t do this by yourself. So in addition to enlisting your friends, contact the feminist student group, the women’s center, the violence prevention office, the Student Government Association, other social justice groups, etc. Build as big of a support system as possible.
- Figure out your options. There were several ways that we could have mandated sexual assault prevention education. One option was at freshman orientation. Another was to include it in the syllabus for a mandatory freshman class called UNIV100. Or, we could have made it a totally separate requirement, outside of any existing programs or classes (which is what we ended up doing). We came up with strategies for each of the options. For freshman orientation, we made a proposal to the director of freshman programs (who also happened to be head of UNIV100 courses, so we were hitting two birds with one stone). That quickly went sour — it was clear that she didn’t think the education was necessary and wasn’t going to work with us. So we were able to quickly move to the third option: Creating a brand new program and making it mandatory through a vote by the University Senate, a body of students, staff and faculty that sets university policy.
- Do your homework. This step takes a while. In addition to figuring out your university’s legislative system, you need to put together an actual proposal. We looked at what other big state schools were doing and took notes on what we thought would and wouldn’t be affective at UMD. We ended up modeling the proposal after Berkeley. So see what other schools in your state/across the country are doing, and feel free to model yours after Maryland!
- Meet with key leaders. My group and I met with administrators, senators and staff members literally dozens of times during my spring semester. We wanted constant updates on how the legislation was doing and we followed-up relentlessly. In short, we made sure our voices were heard, because we wouldn’t stop bothering them. We had already identified several feminist allies in the senate, so we used our relationships with them to get more information. After every meeting, one of us would send out detailed notes to the whole group so everyone was on the same page.
- Drum up support. I wanted to spread the word about the proposal and show the senate how much support it had, so I created a Change.org petition. Because I had so many friends involved in the project, it was circulated widely through social media and got more than 1,500 signatures. Later, an administrator told me that was one of the key factors in getting the proposal passed quickly — the fact that so many members of the campus community wanted the mandate.
- Put a face to the issue (if you can). I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I was raped my sophomore year at UMD, which is why I care so much about prevention. I was comfortable speaking out about what happened to me. I told my story to many administrators I spoke with and it made it harder for them to ignore me — I had put a face to the issue and they couldn’t look the other way any more. If you know a survivor who is comfortable sharing his or her story, they could be a valuable asset. But make sure not to pressure anyone who isn’t comfortable!
- Get media attention. My proposal was covered by several local outlets. Designate someone on your team to be in charge of media outreach. Reach out to the campus news outlets (radio, newspaper, TV, etc.) as well as local news outlets. This helped get more signatures for our petition and it put pressure on the administration to act quickly.
- View setbacks as opportunities. My original goal had been to get something mandated by the time I graduated. But with May quickly approaching, it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen — the senate wasn’t going to vote on my proposal until October. I badly wanted at least something in place by the time I left, so we used this point as an opportunity instead of a setback: We proposed a pilot program for the upcoming fall semester. And because there was so much community interest and support, the administrators felt like they had to act — and our pilot program was approved. That meant while the senate was debating the full mandate, we could try it out on a small group of freshman.
- Just keep going. There will be times when you’ll feel like giving up or letting the issue go. But remember that you are helping to change lives. You are making a difference. And survivors like me really truly love you for it.
If you have any questions about bringing policy changes to your campus, feel free to email me or one of our organizers at campusteam [at] feminist.org. Thanks for fighting the good fight, friend!