This fall, White House staff unveiled a promising program as part of an effort to end sexual assault on college campuses. The campaign, “It’s On Us,” involves student leaders at Yale, among a host of colleges.
Together, a coalition of these leaders — students from the Yale College Council, the Communication and Consent Educators program and the Women’s Center, along with Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd ’90 — gathered on Sept. 2. This was the first of a series of regular, extensive meetings in which we attempted to craft an approach to this campaign that was worthy of Yale.
The White House campaign presented an important baseline by reiterating something I believe bears repeating: We cannot tolerate sexual assault in any form. Toward this end, the White House decided on a pre-set pledge that they wanted all students to sign, whether through social media or some other platform. The White House’s promotional videos for the pledge emphasized the responsibility of men to intervene and prevent sexual assault.
But student leaders and administrators at Yale are not just stopping at the White House pledge. Rather, we have called for an individualized pledge approach that asks groups at Yale to make their own pledges. We did not want to settle for prominent student leaders taking what YCC President Michael Herbert ’16 calls the “sign the pledge, pat yourself on the back” route. Instead, we wanted to simultaneously capitalize on our campus’ sensitivity to issues of sexual violence and actually effectuate an impactful shift in campus culture. Ultimately, we decided student clubs and organizations were best-suited to begin conversations about the specific changes we want to see in our Yale. By letting each group craft its own pledge, we are asking them to sit down and think about how they can set up their own tangible goals for how they can contribute to a safer campus environment.
The decision to run the campaign the way we have so far was also based on a lot of research concerning the most effective ways to engage students in social movements. On this point, the research shows that students’ mindsets are much more easily swayed by the opinions of their more immediate friends and peers than by listening to President Obama, Jon Hamm or another stranger deliver a sound bite. Furthermore, a big issue with the initial approach suggested by the White House was its focus on a male-centric “noblesse oblige”: the idea that it is the role of the macho gentleman to fly in, cape billowing, and save the damsel in distress. Such an outlook perpetuates problematic gender roles.
I genuinely believe that the campaign has been a resounding success. That isn’t to say there weren’t moments of tension and difficult conversations. But these moments are essential to tackling this problem. I have joined multiple groups in the pledge-making process over the course of the campaign. In many of them, the conversation flowed naturally and enthusiastically; other groups may have needed to revisit the pledge over the course of two meetings. Yet in every group I have worked with, from the YCC to the Arab Students’ Association, a common denominator remains: the delightful amount of thoughtfulness Yalies are bringing to these discussions. Yale’s undergraduate organizations are partaking in an organic, grassroots campaign, and it is that same authenticity that makes our goals meaningful, more than their loftiness or specificity.
On the subject of specificity: One of the more relevant critiques I have heard seems to liken the “It’s On Us, Yale” Facebook campaign to the “slacktivism” criticized in the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge. But to address this concern, I would like to remind everyone that this campaign is not meant to be an all-encapsulating approach to addressing sexual violence on our campus. On the policy side, I hope to see the Title IX Undergraduate Advisory Board and the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct implement meaningful reforms this year. The commitment of administrators such as Dean Boyd and University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler to meet with a wide array of student leaders makes me optimistic that, on the topic of sexual assault more than many other hot-button issues, student voice can be heard.
Ultimately, I am proud of the direction this campaign has gone in. I feel lucky every day to be associated with a campus of students so creative, so inspired and so committed to social justice. Looking forward, however, we cannot settle for congratulating ourselves on a campaign well done. If we are to truly secure a Yale free of sexual assault, then we must build on these promises and keep having these difficult conversations.
Layla Khuri is a junior in Saybrook College and Student Life Director of the Yale College Council. Contact her at email@example.com.