An Activist Comes Home

Sheeeeee's back!
Sheeeeee's back! // Karen Tian

“No means yes, yes means anal.”

By now, the words seem to be engraved in the collective memory of the Yale student body. In October 2010, Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanted this line, over and over again, on Old Campus. A swath of Yalies and administrators reacted in swift fashion — angry op-eds, school-wide emails and public forums flooded the campus. The feminist campus publication Broad Recognition considered the DKE incident “the last straw” in a series of public sexual misconduct episodes.

For students such as Alexandra Brodsky ’12 LAW ’16, enough was enough.

“The administration just sort of said, ‘Let’s have a conversation!’” she said in a interview, regarding the dissatisfying administrative response to the DKE chants. In the spring of 2011, she, along with 15 students and alumni, filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

The complainants argued that Yale was fostering a hostile sexual environment; the administration’s ineffective response to similar previous incidents and muddled grievance procedures, they said, contributed to the situation. Events such as these had fueled Brodsky’s activism since joining Yale as a freshman — and the Title IX incident, she said, could be seen as a turning point.

“Too often the story about the Title IX complaint is that it was all about DKE,” Brodsky said. “That’s absolutely not true.”

And now, after a difficult relationship with her alma mater, she has returned this fall as a student at Yale Law School. After experiencing sexual harassment firsthand at Yale, she has increasingly felt the obligation to address feminist issues — on this campus and beyond. Despite her issues with the University, Brodsky’s brand of feminism has been inextricably shaped by her time at Yale.

* * *

When asked about her background in social justice work, Brodsky chuckled.

“I wish I had a story to tell you,” she said. “Something like ‘I grew up in an incredibly radical family.’”

Brodsky went on to list some of her early exposure to matters of social justice — “nothing super significant,” she recalled. For a time she was involved in her synagogue, organizing around the Darfur genocide. On another occasion, her aunt took her to a pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C.

Yet what Brodsky may dismiss as insignificant amounted to an early guiding outlook.

“The little bit of exposure — not a ton — that I got as a teenager struck me that there are things you could do to make the world better and therefore you should do them. In my mind it made sense,” she said. “In high school I understood the work I wanted to do as ‘public service,’ which I think is related to but distinct from my current activism … It was a model of charity more than social justice, generosity rather than empowerment.”

She continued, “I had the privilege of understanding oppression as something that happened elsewhere and to other people, and concluded that if I could help them, I should.”

Her logical motivation for early charity work would become complicated as she became “a real person in the real world” — a Yale student. That is, instead of reading about social injustice, it became personal and salient.

* * *

Before Title IX “became a personally urgent matter,” Brodsky was more frustrated with the constant instances of sexual discrimination she experienced from her peers. She has written in a previous op-ed for the News about being rejected from study groups because of her sex.

But during the Title IX saga, Brodsky never revealed she was a survivor. In her freshman year, one of her peers attempted to rape her. During her entire undergraduate career, that experience was not something she felt safe disclosing on a campus that she shared with her attacker.

In this respect, the Title IX complaint was much more personal to Brodsky than some might have expected.

“You don’t have to be a survivor to recognize that there is a problem,” she said. “But there is a sense of urgency when you’ve had this experience.”

The DKE chants only fueled her anger further. As she put it, students have hoped for many years to work with the administration to improve how Yale addresses sexual misconduct. Seeing that internal change was not going to happen, Brodsky and the other complainants looked into legal options.

“[We were] unified by the belief that the University’s administration was inadequately responding to instances of sexual violence and harassment on campus,” said Joseph Breen ’12, one of the 16 complainants.

Under the spotlight of a federal investigation, a series of administrative decisions took place soon after. Even before Breen and Brodsky graduated from Yale, the University centralized all grievance processes through the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct and created the Communication and Consent Educators program, among other services. It seemed that the longstanding battle against sexual misconduct was finally beginning to pick up steam.

“After the complaint, campus began to treat sexual violence more seriously,” Breen said. “The University realized it had to do a better job of making the campus safe, and so the administration began to make changes.”

* * *

Since graduating from Yale, Brodsky has kept herself busy.

She co-directs Know Your IX, or KYIX, a nationwide campaign that seeks to educate students about their Title IX rights. This summer, she worked at Planned Parenthood on a fellowship and at the Harvard Law School in their gender violence program. She is currently involved with Ed Act Now, a coalition of students and graduates working against sexual violence on colleges and universities. In July, the group rallied outside of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. to gather signatures for their petition demanding that the federal government hold institutions legally accountable for their obligations under Title IX.

Now Brodsky is back on campus, starting anew in the same place that compelled her feminist activism. (She is no stranger to the Yale Law School: she was fully introduced to the inner workings of Title IX in a law school class, “Sexual Rights,” in the fall of 2010.)

“I have no doubt wherever [Brodsky] finds herself, she’s going to be working from inside the institution that she wants to make more fair, more just,” said Crystal Feimster, assistant professor of American Studies & African American Studies and Brodsky’s mentor in her senior year.

At the law school, Brodsky plans to study prison alternatives and feminist legal theory. “I think that there’s a lot I can learn from the law school about how to challenge institutions like Yale,” she said.

Current activists acknowledge positive additions to campus in the wake of the Title IX complaint. Students Against Sexual Violence at Yale (SASVY) is a student group founded in response to the Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct released this summer. The group, which published an open letter to Yale with Brodsky’s help, offers educational materials to help victims report sexual crimes. Since SASVY’s debut, administrators have issued a response to the open letter and agreed to meet with the student organizers to further discuss their concerns.

“We aren’t starting anything new,” said Emma Goldberg ’16, one of the founding members of SASVY. “There are so many students who really paved a path for activism.”

Brodsky said she is letting the “most affected constituency” lead the on-the-ground efforts to combat sexual misconduct on campus, and she is hoping to be a source of institutional memory for future activism.

In other words, she said, “I’m hoping to be helpful.”

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