SAFER Sits Down with Student Anti-Rape Activist John Kelly to Talk Activism, Organizing and Remembering to Breathe

John Kelly is a male, queer sexual assault survivor and student anti-rape activist, affiliated with Know Your IX and ED Act Now. He is a rising senior at Tufts University and in April 2014 he and other students led a rally against the administration’s decision to reject Title IX compliance.

1) When did you first become in sexual violence prevention activism? How?

I first became involved in this activism after experiencing intimate partner violence and rape while a college freshman and sophomore, almost two years ago. I reported my assailant, and had to go through my university’s sexual misconduct adjudication process, where I was humiliated and traumatized left and right. I didn’t know much about the law back then, but I knew what happened to me was unacceptable, and I wanted to do everything I could to prevent it from happening again. I started working with student groups on campus on the policy, and before long ED ACT NOW’s founders were reaching out to me to join their campaign, and everything just took off from there. Since then, I’ve continued working with ED ACT NOW and our umbrella organization Know Your IX, and through that was a student negotiator on the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization negotiated rulemaking committee through the Department of Education, presented policy recommendations to the White House Task Force, and [on June 2nd, 2014, I participated] in a roundtable discussion with Senator McCaskill on campus sexual assault.

2) Before enrolling in college did you give any thought to the issue of campus sexual assault? Why or why not?

I didn’t give it a single thought. I didn’t think it happened to men—it wasn’t an issue that would affect me, so why would I care? Looking back, I can’t believe how wrong I was. While I hadn’t yet come to terms with my identity as a queer male, the fact of the matter is sexual violence affects all populations, and now that I have some distance from my trauma, it’s scary to think I hadn’t realized just how pervasive it is before it happened to me. Even after coming to terms with my identity, I didn’t know that sexual violence could affect me, or my friends, or future partners.

3) How long was the process for you and other students to file Title IX/Clery complaints with the Department of Education against Tufts? What were some of the challenges you faced during the filing process?

I actually haven’t been involved in filing Title IX or Clery complaints against Tufts yet. During this most recent Title IX investigation I was interviewed by the Office of Civil Rights and testified to the issues I faced in reporting, and many of my complaints made it into the OCR’s resolution agreement and finding against Tufts, although I doubt that I was the only student interviewed who had such experiences.

4) When you learned that Tufts would be asked by the federal government to go under voluntary compliance for their Title IX violations, what was your reaction?

I was beyond thankful. We—student survivors and activists on campus, including myself—have been telling Tufts administrators for months that our policy and resources were not up to snuff. After seeing the harm that they caused me, and to then see survivors going through the process currently be facing the same exact issues—issues that also faced people years before I came to Tufts—I knew something had to change. Through Know Your IX, I’ve worked with Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, and have been really impressed by her willingness to do things her own way, and I was just so happy to see that is going to include actually finding schools out of compliance with Title IX.

5) When you learned that Tufts issued a statement that they would not continue with voluntary compliance for Title IX violations, what was your reaction? How did other students on campus react?

This was a move that came way out of left field. From a legal standpoint, you can’t just revoke a signature from a binding legal document, which is what Tufts did, and I am pretty confused that any attorney would think that was a good idea. Tufts has been trying to paint their decision as an act of “active citizenship”, but we all saw right through it. It was a petty move by petty administrators to attempt to cover up their continued wrongdoing, and instead came out looking like a group of disconnected people with no understanding of the plight of survivors on campus. Honestly, it was an absurd and humiliating decision—it showed just how removed Tufts’ administration is from the actual student experience.

6) What organizing strategies did you and other students use to protest/raise awareness about Tuft’s decision to forgo voluntary compliance with Title IX? Do you feel they were effective?

Within minutes of the email our president sent around, students were in communication about this. A group of us—activists, people involved in student groups related to this issue, survivors, and others—knew that something needed to happen. We made the decision within a few hours that we needed to stage a protest, and worked on ways to make that a reality. So many students stepped up big time, during the middle of exam week, to make it a success. We launched a petition that gathered over 1,500 signatures, profile pictures on Facebook that were used by students from every corner of campus, posters that were up the next day, and had the largest rally at Tufts since the 1980s. Students were talking about it, students were upset, and students got educated. I think that it was a highly effective and quick campaign that we launched, and we hope that the dialogue will continue into the next school year.

7) Did you feel Tufts was open to hearing student concerns about incidents of campus sexual violence and administrative misconduct towards survivors? Why or why not?

In some ways, yes, and in others not at all. I worked with administrators to make our policy more explicitly inclusive of same-sex violence, and they were incredibly receptive to that, and students have been involved in a task force on campus, myself included. However, the fact of the matter is if the administration were listening fully to students we would be further along by now. While the administration has made a number of very necessary improvements within the past year and listened to students in those decisions, when it comes to the tough choices, Tufts has not been listening to us. When it comes to removing problematic administrators, taking a harder line on punishments, or speeding up adjudication processes, Tufts hasn’t listened.

8) When you went into the negotiating room with Vice President Harris and other members of the administration, what was it like? Were the negotiations friendly, hostile or neutral? Do you think administrators truly heard the concerns of student activists and survivors during the negotiation process? Why or why not?

Again, I think there was a range. Some administrators were very engaged and ready to get important work done, others not so much. President Monaco rearranged a lot of his schedule while on the West Coast to participate, which we definitely took notice of and appreciated. However, when we suggested that Tufts issue an apology for the harm they caused to survivors by attempting to revoke their signature, they flat out said no. To make matters worse, the reason they used was because they “didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” Speaking to a room of survivors and activists, I think we all know that intention only gets us so far. That’s a rape apologist defense if there ever was one. I very much got the sense from some administrators that they believed we were overreacting—the typical angry victim narrative. However, it’s hard not to listen when you have hundreds of students forming a human chain three rows deep around an entire building, chanting “Re-sign or Resign” at the top of their lungs.

9) What do you think is the future for Tufts in regards to campus sexual violence? Do you think the administration will make a concerted effort to combat violence and support survivors? Or do you believe they are more concerned with “compliance” to Title IX and Clery to avoid future allegations?

I think that over the course of this year, the student body has really mobilized around this issue. We ran an event in early April, It Happens Here, that filled our largest auditorium on campus, we launched the task force in September, and then the protest in May. The unfortunate reality which is by no means limited to Tufts is that schools tend to be reactionary in what they do—they wait until something goes very wrong to change anything, and then they change the bare minimum. I’m worried because the move of Tufts to revoke their signature to me indicates an inability to listen to anyone, even the federal government, which may not bode well for students in the future. However, I think in some ways things will improve, because Tufts has seen the full brunt of student outrage on this issue, and knows that it won’t go away very easily. They have a lot to do to appease us, and I think that gives us a stronger position than we’ve had previously.

10) What would you tell students who are considering taking action against their administration for non-compliance with Title IX/Clery, misconduct towards survivors, or to push them towards adopting a stronger policy on sexual violence?

Don’t let anyone bully you out of doing what you know to be right. If comfortable (and that comfort is a privilege), use the bully pulpit to your advantage. I think what the wave of student activism across the country has taught us is that schools respond when their reputations are threatened, which can only be done through public shaming. Schools didn’t respond until survivors were coming forward—look at Harvard recently, or Amherst last year, or so many other schools. While public shaming can’t solve everything, and may lead to an antagonistic relationship with administrators, it can go a long way in making a school take the need for stronger policies seriously.

11) Anything I missed that you think would be helpful for survivors?

Don’t forget to breathe.

 

SAFER would like to thank John for participating in this interview and for his continued commitment to combatting campus sexual violence. All responses published here are John’s own and are not necessarily reflective of SAFER’s opinions.

10 Student Sexual Assault Prevention Activists to Know!: #7 Nowmee Shehab, Emory University

Throughout the course of the last year, we at SAFER have proudly watched numerous student sexual assault prevention activists speak out against the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses and call for changes to college and universities policies regarding sexual violence.

In honor of Sexual Assault ACTIVISM Month, SAFER will highlight 10 student sexual assault prevention activists around the nation who are creating change on their campus!

#7 Nowmee Shehab, Emory University

Since arriving at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, as a transfer student from Smith College, undergraduate student Nowmee Shehab has led efforts to raise awareness about and curb campus sexual violence on her campus. Nowmee works in Emory’s Center for Women and is a Co-Coordinator for the Respect Program in the Office of Health Promotion, which engages the Emory campus community in preventing and responding to sexual assault and relationship violence. In March 2014, Nowmee won the Unsung Heroine Award from the Center for Women at Emory for her work to combat campus sexual violence.

SAFER provides student activists with a variety of resources, including the Activist Resource Center, which is our online library of sexual assault-related information and resources; on-campus Teach-Ins for student activists, which are led by skilled facilitators and equip students with the skills and information needed to bring about policy reforms and change; and, our Activist Mentoring Program (AMP!), which is our free mentoring service that provides students with continued support after they have completed an on-campus Teach-In.

10 Student Sexual Assault Prevention Activists to Know!: #4 Members of “No Red Tape”, Columbia University

10 Student Sexual Assault Prevention Activists to Know!

Throughout the course of the last year, we at SAFER have proudly watched numerous student sexual assault prevention activists speak out against the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses and call for changes to college and universities policies regarding sexual violence.

In honor of Sexual Assault ACTIVISM Month, SAFER will highlight 10 student sexual assault prevention activists around the nation who are creating change on their campus!

#4: Members of “No Red Tape“, Columbia University

SAFER was founded in New York City at Columbia University in 2000 and, despite a legacy of student sexual assault prevention activism, the institution is again facing allegations that administrators have mistreated survivors, failed to adequately record the allegations of survivors, and protected known repeat-rapists. On admitted students day in April 2014, members of No Red Tape handed out copies of a letter to prospective freshman on the epidemic of college sexual assault and the need for reform at Columbia. The students were quickly removed from the admitted students event and not permitted to return.

SAFER provides student activists with a variety of resources, including the Activist Resource Center, which is our online library of sexual assault-related information and resources; on-campus Teach-Ins for student activists, which are led by skilled facilitators and equip students with the skills and information needed to bring about policy reforms and change; and, our Activist Mentoring Program (AMP!), which is our free mentoring service that provides students with continued support after they have completed an on-campus Teach-In.

10 Student Sexual Assault Activists to Know!: #3: Kate Sim, Harvard University

10 Student Sexual Assault Activists to Know!

Throughout the course of the last year, we at SAFER have proudly watched numerous student sexual assault prevention activists speak out against the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses and call for changes to college and universities policies regarding sexual violence.

In honor of Sexual Assault ACTIVISM Month, SAFER will highlight 10 student sexual assault prevention activists around the nation who are creating change on their campus!

# 3 Kate Sim, Harvard University

Left: Kate Sim ’14

Kate Sim is a student at Harvard University and founder of Our Harvard Can Do Better, which is a student activist organization working on the college, university and national level to advocate for survivor-centric, intersectionally inclusive reform of sexual violence policies. Sim, along with her fellow Harvard Activists, filed a Title IX complaint against Harvard after members of the faculty mistreated survivors and after activists discovered that the University’s current sexual assault policy is over twenty years old. In addition to her work with Our Harvard, Sims is active with Know Your IX.

SAFER provides student activists with a variety of resources, including the Activist Resource Center, which is our online library of sexual assault-related information and resources; on-campus Teach-Ins for student activists, which are led by skilled facilitators and equip students with the skills and information needed to bring about policy reforms and change; and, our Activist Mentoring Program (AMP!), which is our free mentoring service that provides students with continued support after they have completed an on-campus Teach-In.

10 Things All Sexual Violence Prevention Activists Should Know: #8 Garnering outside community support

10 Things All Sexual Violence Prevention Activists Should Know

By Jessica Torres

April is Sexual Assault ACTIVISM Month and in honor of all the hard work that has been done and will be done by college sexual assault prevention activists, SAFER has put together a “Top 10 Things All Sexual Violence Prevention Activists Should Know.” We will be posting one of the ten ideas/suggestions/concepts each day for the first ten days of #SAAM. Please check our blog and our social media for each day’s idea!

Systems and traditions that allow and reinforce rape culture don’t exist in a vacuum; rape culture is informed by everyday microaggressions, historic disenfranchisement of specific groups (like women, LGBT folks, and people of color), and quite frankly, it’s a symptom of larger problems we often don’t have the language to discuss. Here are 10 things that all sexual violence prevention activists should know and consider as they further their efforts to build stronger and long-lasting policies that both reflect and challenge the needs and understanding of sexual assault for students on college campuses.

8. Garnering outside community support

-connect with local community members like small business owners, local activist groups, etc. Their understanding of the political landscape in the larger community is a critical asset for your movement’s sustainability

-if there are more colleges in your area, connect with them! Learn what kinds of strategies they’ve explored and exchange ideas. A great activist is always researching and building relationships with others.

-we’re talking about building safer communities for everyone, who isn’t into that?

SAFER Announces Pilot Training Grant Application

SAFER is excited to announce a new grant application for student activists to bring our policy organizing training to their campus!

For recipients of the grant, SAFER will cover the costs of bringing SAFER to your campus to conduct a policy organizing training. We will also coach you through the process of organizing the training, and provide up to 10 hours of free mentoring after the training. Campuses within the continental United States are eligible. Our goal is to help empower students who don’t have the financial resources to bring SAFER to their campus otherwise.

Please download the application guidelines by clicking here.

When completed, please email your application to development@safercampus.org. The subject line should read “SAFER Pilot Training Grant Application – [your school’s name]”. This application is due absolutely no later than October 1, 2013, but feel free to submit your application before that date. We will be in touch the week of October 7, 2013 about your application.

Change Happened at BU: A Student Activist’s Story

Just weeks ago, Boston University announced the establishment of a sexual assault crisis and prevention center, which is set to open its doors at the beginning of the 2012 school year. Of course, there are some amazing student activists behind this success story. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce Sarah Merriman, whose guest post below chronicles her and her fellow students’ struggle to make change happen at BU. You can also read the proposal they submitted to their school’s administrators by clicking here. Congratulations to Sarah and all of the student activists at BU for this incredible achievement! 

February 20th, 2012. That was the Tuesday morning that dawned bright and cold, the Monday morning in which my life, my experience as a BU student, and my activism, was about to change forever.

My activism, as a student, a researcher, and a feminist operating in Boston and out of BU’s Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism (CGSA) has always centered around issues of interpersonal violence, and almost always focused on sexual assault. For years, it has felt like I have been banging my head against a wall of bureaucracy and budget issues to get an ounce of sexual assault prevention to my fellow students at BU. Other students like me had gone in these same circles. Nothing was happening.

On this Tuesday morning, though, we caught word that a hockey player had assaulted another student over the long weekend, the second in a line of hockey player-perpetuated attacks. Suddenly, this was the incident that launched a thousand students, so to speak. People were confused, angry, shocked, mobilized, and they were looking to the CGSA for guidance. We were the only people on campus consistently working on feminist issues such as sexual assault, and the student body needed us.

After an exhausting few weeks of press, town halls, being attacked on the internet, a task force being formed, and a lot of stressful meetings, a few of us, students both within and outside the CGSA, decided it was time to write a proposal for what we were calling a “rape crisis center.” No student initiative comes to fruition at BU without a written proposal and a strong case, and even then, we knew this was a long shot. But we had to try.

Over many meetings (that went from 9 pm to 2 or 3 in the morning), plus countless hours of outside research that included looking at other universities’ policies and prevention and treatment measures, taking meetings with many experienced university professionals, gathering over 1,000 signatures of support on an online petition, and, in many ways, redefining the dialogue happening across campus about rape culture, we formed a document. It was an exhaustive 20 pages. No stone was left unturned. We attached letters of support from community leaders, and we had our consultants approve the whole thing before turning it in.

I had expected a delay well into the summer. A five-year plan floated in my head. What I never expected, on April 30th, 2012, another bright beginning to my week, was the letter that read that a center would be opening in the Fall of 2012. This year. In a few months. It was happening. It would include bystander intervention training, multiple crisis counselors, and a prevention specialist. I cried as I realized the one thing I had fought for for my the entirety of my undergraduate career was being realized.

Never have I felt like more of a warrior than I did this past year. I was fighting within my school, my community, for its betterment. Famous feminists and national leaders were using my words to send their support for this space and this mission. The paragraphs of prevention suggestions that I wrote will be used in reality. I can’t emphasize enough that the “student voice” is not a worthless one. I was hitting a wall for years before incidental timing and a community ready for change, plus an incredible group of seven students from different backgrounds and experiences, made this proposal happen. That’s student power. That’s why we do what we do, everyday.

SAFER’s Newest Activist Resource Center (ARC) Article, “Campus Policy: Down to Details”

Head over to the ARC to check out SAFER’s latest resource for campus activists, “Campus Policy: Down to Details.”  This article, created by Board Member and ARC Coordinator Renee and her intern, Cat, breaks down some of the most minute details of sexual-misconduct policies that are otherwise easily overlooked. Here’s the official description from Renee and Cat:

SAFER recognizes that no single policy works for every school; every campus has unique challenges and situations that need to be considered. This article helps students critically analyze their policy in order to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. It can also be used as a group activity or conversation starter.

And Happy Friday!

Apply NOW for FlipIt!

Are you an undergraduate student currently residing in or around New York City? SAFER has teamed up with NOW-NYC and A Long Walk Home for FlipIt: Students Organizing Against Violence, a free, one-day student summit and interactive workshop focused on campus organizing, policy reform, and using art for social change. Students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQQI students, and men are encouraged to apply. I’ve included a brief summary of the day’s activities below, but you can head over to the conference’s Facebook page to learn more.

• Receive in-depth training on sexual assault and campus policy with anti-violence and advocacy experts
• Build a new school peer-group that will work together to make change on your campus
• Connect with local organizations and leaders in activism
• Become part of a new city-wide network of students and student leaders working to stop sexual assault

The event will be held at Pace University on April 14, 2012, but the application deadline is right around the corner. Make sure to apply by March 12, 2012!