This post is part of a series of articles Feminist Campus is highlighting during April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM2015).
One would think that it would be fairly simple to write about your own experiences. However, in this case it has not been so. No less than five staff at the Feminist Majority Foundation asked me to write this piece on my experience fighting sexual assault on my campus. Each time I began to write the piece, I was suddenly stopped because some new person reached out to us, a new meeting popped up, a new person decided to call us every name under the sun, or we simply hit a road block. After starting and stopping so many times, I finally realized the meaning of what I’d been doing.
Lesson 1: When trying to combat sexual assault and rape on your campus, expect things to happen and happen fast. Expect things to happen that you have no idea how to handle. Expect that at some point, things will be happening faster than you can manage. Most importantly, expect that things will get better.
Now that may seem dramatic or alarmist, but please don’t be discouraged. Yes, things will happen, but there are ways to prepare for those unexpected events. Our story is not over yet and neither is our fight. We still have a long way to go and I know things will happen that we never saw coming, but I know we have made some great strides thus far and I am proud of that. I don’t think that we did everything right. But here are some crucial lessons I’ve learned that I think will be helpful to others. Use them as you like.
Lesson 2: Before you do anything, build a strong, reliable group that is willing to take this issue on. I am the president of the feminist group at the University of Mary Washington, and while I have been a large player in making this change, nothing would have happened if I did not have my executive board there with me. You can’t do it alone. Bring together a group of dedicated individuals who are passionate about the issue and are willing to put in the long hours necessary to combat it.
Make sure to have victims and survivors on this team. Their voices are most important and they must be heard. They will have knowledge and understanding of the system and how broken it is and have ideas on how to fix it. They will have insights, and those insights must be heard if you are to make any meaningful change.
So you have your dedicated team. Now what? It’s not enough to say, “We want to end sexual assault on campus.” That’s a great first step, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Lesson 3: Prioritize. Put together a list of the top five things you want to change on campus that you think would help to end sexual assault.
Back to lesson 2. This is where it is crucial to have the insights from victims and survivors. For our group at UMW, we said we wanted to:
1. Improve orientation,
2. Continue the conversation throughout the year,
3. Hire a sexual assault response coordinator,
4. See more outreach to student groups about how to combat the issue,
5. And improve the way cases are handled.
This was what we prioritized. This list will be different for every school and every situation. But you must have a list. We all know everything is a mess. But let’s take this one item at a time and start to affect change by chipping away.
Lesson 4: Identify the decision makers. With your prioritized list, your next step is to go through each action point and find out who the ultimate decision maker is in affecting the change you want to see. These are the people you need to pressure, meet with, talk to, petition to, etc. These are the people that will ultimately decide if what you want to happen will.
Now here’s the part where it gets fun. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to fight to end sexual assault on campus. In a perfect world those decision makers would have this as a top priority and every campus in the country would do all they can to support victims and survivors. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where you have to yell and scream to get attention. So sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do.
Lesson 5: Make sexual assault on campus a known issue at your school. Table, protest, march, send out letters, send out emails, do a photo campaign, bring in the press, make a hashtag. Do what you must to get people on campus aware and talking about the issue and make sure the decision makers know its’ going on. People can’t get behind an issue they don’t know exists.
So now you have everyone riled up and ready to go. The administration is taking notice. Now is your time.
Lesson 6: Meet with the decision makers. Reach out to those people who ultimately decide if these changes can happen. Type up a list of your priorities and present it to them so they know exactly what you’re asking for. During each meeting set up a time and date to meet for the next one. Type up a list of promises they made and what you expect to see from their end to bring to the next meeting so they are held accountable. Each meeting will give you some progress and the key is to keep building on that progress.
Suddenly, you will see change start to happen. You’ll see some of those items on your list translate into realities. But now is not the time to stop. Now is the time to keep pushing, keep the conversation going, and really start to change the campus culture. Pushback will come. Roadblocks will happen. Things will move so fast they seem blurred together rather than organized into neat steps. The process will be hard and it will take years. It’s hard to fight for something that should be a given. It’s hard to fight for something while fellow students retaliate against you. It’s hard to fight for something while being a student. There have been so many times when all I wanted was to step down and hand over this fight to some other group. There are two things that have kept me going: the unwavering support of the feminist community on our campus, and the knowledge that what we are doing is right and necessary.