Over two months ago, Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz began carrying her dorm mattress across campus in protest of the University’s failure to bring justice to her and other students who have endured rape and sexual assault. As part of her senior thesis, Sulkowicz’s expression of pain, healing and communal action functions as both a political resistance and performance art called Carry That Weight. Now, what has begun as a solitary project has evolved into a national movement.
On Wednesday, Oct. 29, Vassar students participated in the Carry That Weight’s National Day of Action, hosted by We Are Here, a bystander intervention curriculum created by Shivani Davé ’15, Emma Redden ’15 and Sofie Cardinal ’15, and Break the Silence, a blog for survivors of sexual assault and abuse to anonymously share their stories. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the team of organizers tabled in the Retreat surrounded by four Vassar-issued mattresses.
As students passed through the College’s social center, many of them approached the table to make a sign of solidarity, get their pictures taken in front of a mattress and look at the artwork and statistics displayed on them.
“I’ve only had positive interactions so far today,” said Sara Cooley ’15. “There’s no one who is confused by why this is here or why this is necessary.” She stood in front of a mattress decorated with a quilt of patches passersby had created, bearing messages such as “Respect my autonomy,” “Listen to me” and “You are not alone.”
Though students did not carry any of these mattress on Wednesday as those from many other Colleges did on the Day of Action, the decision to deviate from this physical demonstration was carefully considered.
“I think having a location where people can gather creates a transient but essential community,” Redden said. “Part of this project is about raising consciousness and awareness and having it stationary means people can stop by and take photos. If this were mobile, it would also be hard to have all of this information available,” she continued, gesturing toward the statistics and graphics covering the displayed mattresses.
Cooley added that there is one more crucial reason why the team decided to keep the project contained to one area of campus. She stated, “As a group we wanted to find the line between raising awareness and triggering survivors, which is also why there was a campus-wide email that [VSA President] Carolina Gustafson sent out. We did it that way so that people who felt they would be triggered by it could avoid the Retreat and College Center.”
While they agreed that largely students understood the gravity of the cross-campus movement, Davé spoke to its relevance for Vassar.
“More recently, sexual assault and bystander intervention have been gaining public importance whether it be in the form of White House mandates or victims and survivors speaking out. Vassar is no different from any other institution: Sexual assault, stalking, dating and gender-based violence happens here, and it happens often,” said Davé.
According to Vassar’s Safety and Security website, in 2013 alone, there were 24 cases of forcible sexual assault—a number which has tripled in the last four years as stated in the Jeanne Clery Campus Security Act Report released on Sept. 24—four cases of domestic and dating violence and one instance of stalking. These numbers eclipse those of some of Vassar’s peer institutions, with Marist College reporting four sexual assault cases between 2010 and 2012, and Smith College reporting 12 within a three-year period (“More reported crime at VC than peer colleges.” The Miscellany News. 10.1.14) Many more instances of gender violence go unreported.
Whether one chooses to file charges or not is their own prerogative, said Davé, but, despite the difficulty of coming forward in any capacity, she maintained that it is important to share these stories of trauma. She added, “I think we all can imagine how incredibly difficult, re-victimizing and painful publicly talking about your experiences can be, and yet we need people to speak. Being vocal about this violence is resistance and activism and healing it itself, and joining the movement is just one more step in a long, long journey.”
For those who feel more comfortable sharing their stories in anonymous forums, Kayla Neumeyer ’15 and her partners who work with Break the Silence ensure that these survivors also have a space to heal on campus.
“The day of action has goals that line up really well with what Break the Silence at Vassar does in terms of raising awareness about sexual assault on campus, though we mainly do it through sharing stories on our website—this movement is all about making noise and making sure people are listening,” wrote Neumeyer in an emailed statement. She added, “I think a movement that connects colleges across the country could be the push we need for people to realize that this is a real issue that happens everywhere, and it isn’t going away.”
Yasmeen Silva ’15 echoed the importance of the necessity for a collective to combat sexual assault and reach out to survivors. As she worked on a felt patch to add to the quilt she said, “If something happens on one campus and that makes change, that’s great. But when it’s happening across campuses it shows that it isn’t an isolated case: It’s endemic. And just as we were inspired by what is happening at Columbia, people might see what we’re doing at Vassar and feel moved to action.”
She went on to emphasize the importance of activists of other movements to pause and show support for each other. Silva stated, “It’s important to show solidarity across movements. I’m an outskirt member of Break the Silence and the Feminist Alliance and I’m more involved in movements concerned with race, but I believe we should support any victims of violence and silencing. It’s important to show survivors that we stand with them.”
On Oct. 26, Sulkowicz published an Op-Ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator expressing her hopes for the Day of Action and requests for those participating. “My biggest dream for this day of action is that hundreds, even thousands, of people participate,” she wrote. “However, it would upset me if so many people carried pillows that there were no hands left to help those who have decided to carry mattresses. My mattress only begins to feel light when there are five pairs of hands on it. Pillows are singular, individual, and keep us from literally carrying the weight together” (“A Call to Carry That Weight Together.” Columbia Daily Spectator. 10.26.14).
Here, Sulkowicz hits on the key symbolism of the mattress that resonates with survivors across the country. Davé spoke to the aptness of the mattress in its symbolic representation, stating, “The mattress to me, symbolizes the burden that is placed on victims and survivors to carry their violence and their healing everywhere, all the time, and often, alone. It’s heavy enough to weigh you down and light enough to allow you to move. You have to keep moving.”
Neumeyer added that the mattress serves as a reminder of how pervasive sexual assault is and the way it invades and colors the most intimate facets of a person’s life.
She wrote, “The mattress is a source of a lot of tension and emotion for survivors of sexual assault. It’s a powerful symbol that really highlights the way a personal space—our mattress, our bedrooms—are transformed into something steeped with trauma. It says: In our dorms, on our campus, sexual assault happens here.”
Though Carry That Weight deals with the real and the literal, it is part of a legacy of using art to create solidarity, generate awareness and cope with personal grief.
“Art can also make people pay attention when they otherwise wouldn’t. I think the reason Sulkowicz’s project has gained so much support and attention is because it is very public, very literal and encourages community accountability in an extremely visible way: People can choose to literally help her carry the burden she will carry until her rapist is expelled,” wrote Neumeyer. “No one person can end sexual assault alone.”
Davé agreed, stating that creating an atmosphere of communal responsibility should be even more of a priority at a college of Vassar’s size.
“We walk around and see familiar faces and joke about how small this school is and yet we remain apathetic to and complicit in much of the violence that it and we perpetuate. We see the same 20 people at every activist meeting, event, and rally. The same students are in meetings after meetings with the same administrators who make empty promises and say awful, hurtful things,” she said.
On behalf of We Are Here, and as her personal plea, Davé hopes that the National Day of Action holds people accountable to create change. She took a photo in front of a mattress with only the Carry That Weight hashtag, holding a sign that read, “Vassar College: ruins people’s lives. Help us,” her face somber and gaze demanding.
Davé finished, “I hope that we start to ask for public, honest conversations with the people that can make effective change about this violence. I hope that we stop asking marginalized and victimized voices to make us move.”