Few of us can boast to have the power of artistic genius in the palm of our hand. But on Thursday at SAVP’s finger-painting event, some of us might get the chance. The event is part of a series rolled out by SAVP this year that focuses on self-care. With five new student-employees and a brand new office, the organization has rapidly expanded this year to address issues of dating violence, sexual assault and rape on campus.
SAVP intern Rachel Spayd ’16 said the idea for the event came to her when she remembered the feeling of paint drying on her fingertips. “That’s a great feeling, and it’s so simple,” she said.
The event is for survivors of sexual violence and their friends to take a step back and have fun. Importantly, this self-care event is not about frivolity. “It’s not about treating yourself or watching Netflix for four hours. It’s about enriching your mind and your spirit in a pressure-free place,” she said. That’s why SAVP found finger painting to be such a great media for art-therapy. There are no pretenses about the finished product.
The self-care series is only a small part of a campus-wide movement to help survivors. Over the last year, SAVP has made big strides to expand and increase campus visibility. Self-care events like this one have been coupled with a brand new bystander intervention training for organization leaders, a series of panel discussions and awareness months for sexual assault and dating violence.
This past October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and SAVP focused on programming on dating violence in collaboration with LGBTQ. A panel discussion was held, as well as an event titled “Yoga for Healing.” Upcoming, in April SAVP will focus on getting the word out about the realities of sexual assault.
Bystander intervention training has become a primary focus for the group. Currently, the group uses a training program designed by Vassar ’15 alumni Shivani Dave, Emma Redden and Sofie Cardinal. The “We Are Here” training program was originally a 12-hour program, but has been cut down to an hour or two.
The training fits schedules better now, but it condenses and omits some of the most important information. The SAVP provides optional training, but attendance is rarely high. In addition, optional training is self-selecting. In the words of SAVP Coordinator Charlotte Swanson, “The students who need the programming—who need to learn the most—are not reached.”
In her recent article, Elena Riecke ‘16 gave another critique of these trainings. She wrote, “Bystander intervention training covers gender inequality and the definition of consent (presence of a yes, not absence of a no), but it is all in the context of how to prevent violence from happening to others. Vassar does not offer any piece of training that teaches its students how to not be rapists.”
In response to Riecke’s critique of the program, Swanson and Spayd acknowledged the complexities of reaching potential perpetrators. “We would like to see more mandated programming so that it would be more realistic to reach students at risk for committing interpersonal violence, and at that point it would become more feasible to discuss rape culture as it pertains to perpetrators,” they said.
For now, SAVP is primarily focused on helping victims most recently through a new “I believe in you” photo campaign. Julian Dishart ’17 and Spayd have been staking out the college center photographing students holding signs declaring, “you have the right to be heard” or, “you have the right to non-judgmental support, to go out and have fun.” The highly visible project hopes to provide a network of support among friends and others. “We want people to know how to be there for their friends, and to be that voice of support. Telling them, I do believe in you,” said Spayd of the new program.
For friends to be most supportive in these situations it’s important to remember that they are already losing power. To give a friend back that power, Spayd remarked, “We need to let them self-determine and make their own choices.”
Six of the student employees at SAVP are members of the 24-hour listening service CARES, which focuses on issues of interpersonal violation. For CARES counselor Brendan Kiernan ’16, the administration’s increased support has not all been positive. CARES has decided to distance itself in order to preserve the mission of the group: being a non-judgmental, confidential, listening center. To do that, it is necessary to let students make the call when reporting incidents of sexual violence. As Kiernan said, “The most important thing is to be victim centered when we go through these processes.”
Both SAVP and CARES find the presence of sexual assault and personal violence as a systemic issue, and have worked to build coalitions with organizations like LGBTQ, the ALANA center and The Listening Center to address the underlying systems supporting the persistence of sexual violence in the community.
As Riecke put it in her article, “I do not believe that all rape is intentionally rape, but it is an intentional use of power.” Intentionality is often the thin line found in cases of sexual assault, and what can be so difficult for administrators, supporters and students to determine. That’s why SAVP has initiated their campaign, “I believe you.” The photo project rolled out this week for All College Days is intended to help foster a supportive and safer community that does not sweep issues of sexual violence under the rug. Part of the central message is that we cannot support survivors if we deny the realities of sexual violence on campus. SAVP believes the message “I believe you” is the first step towards creating that space of support.