Voices Against Violence

 

Students half a world apart are joining forces to end campus sexual assault.

On a chilly morning in March, bleary-eyed students file into a large conference room in the corner of the second floor of the Student Services Building. It’s so early that a maintenance worker cleaning up inside has to let each student through the locked double doors. One-by-one, they sling their bags down, say hello to Voices Against Violence(VAV) prevention and outreach specialist Lauren White, and make a beeline for the back of the room, where brown bags full of breakfast tacos await their 8 a.m. arrival.

“We have to say 7:45, or they’ll be here at 8:15,” White says, laughing.

Punctuality is important today. White is expecting a Skype call from the other side of the world. At 8 a.m. on the nose, it comes, and after ironing out a few technical difficulties, White, student representatives from service organizations like BeVocal and Texas Blazers, and UT Title IX Coordinator LaToya Smith are smiling at a group of Indian students who are enthusiastically waving and throwing hook ’em signs with their hands. Leading them is a man named Greg Pardo. Though regularly stationed in Kolkata, India, today he sits surrounded by university students in Ranchi, nearly 250 miles west.

It all started with a feature on campus sexual assault written last year in this very magazine. In March, Pardo, MPA ’10, Life Member, read about how campus groups like VAV were combating the systemic problem at UT-Austin. An assistant public affairs officer with the U.S. Consulate General, Pardo, in partnership with Indian human rights group Shakti Vahini, pitched a collaboration with VAV, a department of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, under the umbrella of the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, whose stated mission is to “offer comprehensive violence prevention and response programs.”

The result is a sharing of ideas between students almost 9,000 miles apart. Today is the fourth of four virtual conferences with students at different universities in East India to share stories of how they are working to combat interpersonal violence on campus. The goal is not for one side to lecture the other, but for the groups to foster an exchange of ideas together.

Pardo opens the conversation with some evidence to the affirmative. On the previous conference call, a UT student named Katherine Stadler mentioned that she was working on a series of stickers that contained helpful information about domestic violence and sexual assault services to place in women’s restrooms across campus. A student in India took some initiative, and was in the process of designing similar stickers for her university. As Pardo relays this message to the UT students, they grow excited. Stadler is pleasantly shocked that her idea reached the Eastern Hemisphere.

During the course of the hourlong call, the sides take turns asking questions of their counterparts. They discuss trans rights, interracial and interfaith relationships, men’s responsibilities in gender-based violence, Greek life, and school-mandated curfews, a major  issue for female students in India. In an effort to curb sexual assault, strict curfews are imposed only on female students across the country, which impedes both their ability to work on group projects after dark and to have the same normal social lives that male students are afforded.

“There were so many things [the UT students] told me about that don’t even exist at our university,” says Sneha Harsh, a student at Lady Sri Ram College of Delhi University. “They can go out, party, chill, work together. Why is there that difference? We’re all students.”

Despite cultural differences and changes in verbiage (dorms are called “hostels” in India, and hazing is referred to as “ragging”), the students find common ground in their respective fights, their faces lighting up and voices animating as the discussion proceeds.

It’s not just the exchange of ideas that makes this connection worthwhile. Even just seeing people—men, women, students, administrators—gathered together across oceans, borders, and cultural lines struggling with the same inequalities strengthens the resolve of the participants.

“There’s a stigma for men to get involved in India. [It’s] ‘Why would you get involved? That’s a women’s issue.’”

“There’s that Einstein quote that goes, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough,’” White says. “We are forcing ourselves to understand why we’re working so hard. That is one of the surprising benefits.”

On the U.S. side in particular, White is careful to involve other relevant student organizations so that the conversations include every aspect of interpersonal violence from a variety of perspectives. Members from BeVocal can speak to bystander intervention. Student Government officers can outline campus-wide initiatives and priorities. And, in an effort to show that women aren’t in the fight alone, members of the Texas Blazers can show that male allies are needed.

“There’s a stigma for men to get involved in India,” White says. “[It’s] ‘Why would you get involved? That’s a women’s issue.’”

UT senior Justin Atkinson, a member of the Blazers, pitched a collaboration with VAV when he joined the organization his junior year, eventually raising $4,500 for the Survivor’s Fund, helping to host Take Back the Night, and forging a strong and ongoing bond between the two organizations. He says that during the third call with Indian students, the conversation mostly focused on how men figure into creating solutions.

“I felt bad because I didn’t want to monopolize it, [but] the men in India were saying it was hard to get other men to engage. [Men] shift this on to women, which is not responsible,” Atkinson says.

This spring, the UT System published an empirical study called Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments (CLASE) containing data on sexual harassment, stalking, dating/domestic abuse and violence, and unwanted sexual contact across the system. The UT-Austin findings shocked many, with 15 percent of undergraduate females responding that they had been raped since enrollment, and 42 percent of all students who responded saying they had experienced sexual harassment from their peers.

“To look at that data and say, ‘This is the reality of it,’” Atkinson says, “to ignore it is not right.”

As the conversation comes to a close, with both sides still engaged but classes beginning on the Forty Acres, Pardo thanks White, Smith, and the UT students for participating. “Relationships between the U.S. and India goes beyond prime ministers and presidents, it goes people-to-people,” he says. “This is a great example of how we can share what we can do on campuses.”

As is customary, at the end of the session, each side takes a group picture and says goodbye. The shutters click and the screen flickers off, but the connection remains, and the fight on both sides to end interpersonal violence on university campuses continues. Pardo says he hopes to someday bring UT students to see India for themselves and meet with students face-to-face.

“If we can get some [students] to connect on their own with each other, that’s great—then you know there’s sustained relationship of sharing ideas,” Pardo says. “There have been many students who have approached us to get Lauren’s email. They want to ask more questions.”

Aside from other programming, like Take Back the Night and Get Sexy. Get Consent, an inclusive, interactive performance that teaches boundaries and consent for free to UT community members, White is open to further student-to-student collaborations, both in the U.S. and abroad.

“We are interested for sure. It’s a lot of work,” White says, “but there is this passion that just could not be contained.”

Illustration by Brian Stauffer.

Note: An earlier version of this article mentioned that VAV was under the umbrella of the Office of the Dean of Students. It has been corrected to reflect that it is under the umbrella of the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs.

 

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