Though many students dedicate their time to studying theory and discussing violence, silencing and oppression, it can be hard to address or even recognize when it actually happens. And yet, it is something that happens. Over the summer, three students have dedicated their time to developing a curriculum to give their peers tools to talk about sexual assault and to give them tools to intervene. Shivani Dave ‘15, Emma Redden ‘15 and Sofie Cardinal ‘15, along with Coordinator of SAVP at Vassar Elizabeth Schrock, have collaborated to bring this program, which they call We Are Here, to Freshman Orientation, the Vassar Student Association’s Fall Leadership Conference, as well as a number of other spaces.
Dave, Redden and Cardinal, wanted to create an all-encompassing program influenced by different programs addressing anti-racism, oppression, bystander intervention, sexual violence and exploration of identity.
In an emailed statement, Cardinal said, “The program works to broaden our view of violent and inappropriate behaviors by understanding how this violence has been normalized and asks students to practice intervening across the whole spectrum.”
We Are Here’s mission proposal states that its objective is to create and build a program that promotes empathy within the community and work towards fostering a violence-free campus.
Julia Wieczorek ‘17, a Jewett HFI who was at the presentation during orientation, , wrote in an emailed statement, “There is always a need for more awareness about rape culture around campus, as well as promotion of bystander intervention. Rape culture is something that should not be condoned or encouraged, and is a serious issue. The more aware and informed our community is, the more we can combat rape culture and sexual assault, and facilitate change.”
We Are Here hopes to spark this change. In order to start this work, they have presented an abridged version of their program to house teams and all first-year students, along with a session at the VSA leadership conference. According to Cardinal, they are going to be working with the classes that upperclassmen are required to take if they want to host parties in their THs or TAs.
Wieczorek thought that the stand We Are Here took on the extant topics of sexual violence and accountability was appropriate.
“The We Are Here presentation flowed smoothly and was very serious and informative,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “It also allowed for participation from the listeners, our freshmen, who were able to ask questions, work in groups, and express their views in an atmosphere of respect and empathy.”
She went on to add, “I had some feedback from freshmen after the presentation, and they said We Are Here’s presentation was acute and honest, and felt more comfortable as opposed to the previous presentation done in UpC, which they found to be insensitive and hurtful.”
In addition to the drive to increase awareness about issues of sexual assault through their presentation, We Are Here has also created a Bystander Pledge. The Bystander Pledge holds the pledger accountable to do the right thing. The Pledge states, “I pledge to support and encourage my peers to also take responsibility for ending sexual, dating and gender-based violence. I pledge to speak out against all forms of sexual, dating and gender-based violence. I pledge to interrupt sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic jokes that objectify people and support rape culture.”The We Are Here founders hope to ensure not only that bystanders understand their responsibilities in these situations, but that these situations do not arise as often if at all.
Kelly Grab, a Title IX Investigator and Assistant Director of Residential Life, wrote in an emailed statement that she believes this program will be successful. “There is most certainly a need for ongoing conversation and education about rape culture. I think the work that has been put into the program will have a lasting impact and that it will continue to grow and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of our students, faculty and administrators.”
Grab added that the curriculum of the program includes evidence-based research from Bringing in the Bystander® that has been customized to encompass the whole of the diverse Vassar student population.
Cardinal wrote that they had even created new language to add to the student handbook regarding Vassar College expected behavior. This document was endorsed by Catherine Hill, President of the College; Renee Pabst, Director of Health Education; Luis Inoa, Director of Residential Life; and Grab. It states: “Everyone has the right to be free from sexual violence,” and “Everyone is expected to support survivors or victims of sexual violence, stalking, dating and gender-based violence.”
As a Title IX Investigator, Grab has to investigate instance where members of college communities may not meet these expectations. Grab wrote, “Anything we can do to clearly communicate that acts of sexual violence and harassment are not acceptable here helps to reinforce that message and will hopefully allow for more peer accountability and ultimately prevention.”
Wieczorek said that she wants to see We Are Here as a long term installment on campus.
“I hope that We Are Here will help prevent unsafe behavior around campus, but it is up to the students to be willing to promote change,” she wrote. “We Are Here can bring peer insight and awareness to the Vassar community because it is a student-run program, and can help students recognize rape culture and prevent it not only at Vassar, but in the world around us.”
We Are Here is a new program with a lot of support. Grab wrote, “No one program will solve or prevent unsafe or risky behavior; however, I think this program emphasizes both individual and community responsibility when it comes to addressing sexually violent behavior, in all forms, on campus.”