It’s something that can no longer be ignored – student activists are demanding action and change on a variety of issues, and people are listening. The #MeToo movement has proven its cultural staying power, continuing to spread throughout various industries, and on high school and college campuses. Students across the nation are utilizing whisper networks (à la the Shitty Media Men list) to expose assailants, abusers, and harassers across college campuses, and are questioning and speaking out about sexual assault and harassment policies. I had the opportunity to speak with Eliana Perozo and Sydney Peterson, student leaders at Sewanee: The University of the South, who shed light on their new campus movement that is giving their peers a voice and a platform to speak up.
Sydney and Eliana, along with other Sewanee students in the Leadership Coalition, organized a protest in February in response to Sewanee’s Board of Regents’ decision to uphold the honorary degree of accused sexual harasser Charlie Rose. Their message was, and is, simple: “We demand that the degree be revoked and seek to inspire open and honest dialogue addressing our campus climate on sexual misconduct.”
And that is exactly what these students are doing – creating a space to understand the broader implications of the Board of Regents’ decision and to start a broader conversation around sexual misconduct on their campus. This is Speak Up Sewanee.
Content Warning: The following interview discusses sexual violence and harassment.
Samantha Levine: Could you each tell me a little bit about yourselves?
Sydney Peterson: I am the Co-Director at the Women’s Center, which provides 24/7 peer support, and we direct students who are unclear about Title IX and other sexual misconduct resources on campus. We also organize feminist events on campus by bringing in speakers, hosting art exhibits, and engaging in discussions and conversations.
Eliana Perozo: I am the Co-Director of the Community Engagement House [a learning-living residential space] on campus. Basically, what the Community Engagement house does is we partner with community members, students, and faculty to address the multiple needs within our community. What I specialize in is engaging and acknowledging that, previous to last year, the way in which community engagement was defined was very geared towards a specific white elite group of students on campus, and what our house is trying to do is redefine that lens.
SL: How did Speak Up Sewanee form?
EP: Another student leader in our movement, Claire Brickson, forwarded the email she received from the Board of Regents to [me] and asked me, “How do we fix this, Eliana?” I then forwarded it to 30 women leaders on campus, and one student said, “Let’s print these posters out and put them all over campus.” That Friday morning, we woke up at 6 A.M. with 200 copies and we plastered them everywhere. Posters were put on professor’s doors and in the community chapel in order to raise as much awareness as we could.
After that, the Vice Chancellor came to speak at an event and was definitely made uncomfortable by these posters. There was a public forum where myself and two other students engaged in a public conversation about the Charlie Rose decision. During that time, Sydney was also mobilizing the conversation on campus. Word spread and about 100 community members showed up as we explained what we were going to do, what it was going to look like, and how we can move forward.
SP: This one meeting … really showed how the power of people could raise their voice, and this was when we introduced Speak Up Sewanee. A large number of the Sewanee population does not agree with [the Board of Regents’] decision and want to expand the movement, not just around the Charlie Rose degree, but also around violence in general that we experience on our campus.
SL: We’ve recently seen student activism at an all-new level that has truly been inspirational. How does it feel being part of a student group who is demanding action and change? How can you expand your message to actually demand action?
EP: One of the reasons we started Speak Up Sewanee is because we acknowledge that we are seniors and that we have two and half months here and we have no intent in this activism stopping. We want this movement to be something that can be continued on … There are students that are hungry to be a part of this change and want to challenge our administration and there simply wasn’t a platform for that to happen before. Students need to see us, leaders on campus initiating change. As our website says, this is a movement encouraging students to question their administration[s] on a local, state, and federal level. What we’re hoping for is for this movement to go much deeper and further than sexual assault. We want this movement to be the platform students need to continue their activism on our campus – in whatever way that manifests – and right now it’s revoking [Charlie Rose’s] degree, but in a year, we want students to be able to demand whatever else they need to demand.
SP: We have talked about the comparison of our institution to the entire United States. Yes, our activism must be demanded on our campus level, but we’re also at a time in the United States where we should be questioning the democracy of our nation. And we have found very striking similarities [in] how our institution is run and how the Trump administration is run.
EP: I do believe one key aspect of this movement is that when we were demanding the degree to be revoked, we were also demanding more transparency, and that is truly at the heart of what we are doing right now. We are asking for our Vice Chancellor to be more transparent with students as far as decision-making goes. So much of what we have done is because of our Liberal Arts degree, and it would be a shame for us to sit back and not do anything when we have the tools and we have the capabilities to do something because of the education we have received from Sewanee throughout the last four years. We are using our education to demand this transparency that is simply missing right now.
SL: How does what you both are doing tie into the #MeToo movement? How does your school’s decision add to the larger conversation of sexual harassment in our society today?
SP: The most blatant example that comes to mind is Trump saying “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” and how the initial reaction by a lot of people in power was asking for forgiveness, saying, “Oh, it’s just locker room talk,” or “men being men,” and that was the same conversation that was being circulated around the Charlie Rose decision. The language was the same, mentioning forgiveness and hierarchy of sin. There were conversations about how it “wasn’t our right to condemn Charlie Rose.”
EP: Our Vice Chancellor actually said “I don’t understand,” and asked us to convince him how revoking this degree and campus sexual assault are connected; for me, it seems obvious, and that is something we are trying to make our administration see now.
SL: What does revoking this degree mean?
EP: What revoking this degree means is that we are changing the culture. We are acknowledging that this is systemic, and that revoking this degree means that our administration is willing and committed to protecting and acknowledging the rights of survivors and victims on this campus over the men that are responsible for sexual assault on a local and national level.
SL: What can other feminists who read the Feminist Campus blog do to help your platform and campaign? Do you have any final advice for our young feminist leaders?
SP: On our website, there is a forum page, and we would love other students from different campuses to post on that page and see if there are any similarities [among cases/policies/culture surrounding campus sexual assault and harassment]. This isn’t just a Sewanee problem – we would love to see everyone challenge their institutions.
EP: Our advice for women in college leadership positions is to talk to women of color and to make sure that the way people identify is how we shape the world – because until all of us have some sort of justice, none of us will. Remember: you can’t make everyone happy. But it’s not about being right, but about justice for all and encouraging open dialogue for all.
Speak Up Sewanee is a movement that is just getting started. Sewanee may be a small university, but the issues its students are tackling are part of a much larger conversation and a much larger movement of student-led activism. By taking on their University’s administration, Sydney, Eliana, and the many student activists of Sewanee are showing the rest of the world the true power of a group of motivated young people. Revoking Charlie Rose’s honorary degree is merely a jumping-off point for Speak Up Sewanee, a movement that will continue to grow, confronting local and national issues by giving students a voice and platform to speak up, demand action, and create change.