Around 60 attendees filled the Dwight Hall Common Room Saturday morning for Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale’s inaugural Fearless Conference, which sought to discuss how sexual violence can affect communities both on and off Yale’s campus.
Founded in fall 2015, USAY has been active lately in facilitating discussions about a healthy sexual environment on campus, especially following controversies surrounding the expulsion of Jack Montague, former captain of the Yale men’s basketball team, in February for violating the University’s sexual misconduct policies. Last Monday, USAY and the Yale Black Women’s Coalition organized a town hall that drew hundreds of attendees to discuss Yale’s current sexual climate. At this Saturday’s conference, USAY hosted three speakers — political science professor Elisabeth Wood, Program Manager of the Women of Color Network Zoe Flowers and Co-Founder of “Know Your IX” and Senior Editor of feminist website “Feministing” Alexandra Brodsky ’12 LAW ’16 — who discussed how sexual violence can take on many forms and impact various communities in different ways.
Representatives from over 20 student groups on campus, including fraternities and sororities, the YBWC, the cultural centers, the Black Men’s Union and the LGBTQ Co-op, attended the conference. According to USAY Co-Founder and Co-Director Helen Price ’18, the goal of the student-led, student-run conference was to take an intersectional look at sexual violence and to promote a broader conversation that would appeal to multiple constituencies on campus.
“It’s cool for me to come here and see representatives from communities that I don’t generally associate with advocating against sexual assault on campus,” USAY board member Lindsey Hogg ’17 said, adding that it was valuable to know that there are people in all of these communities who want to see change and establish a more supportive environment for survivors on campus.
Wood opened the conference with a presentation about the use of sexual violence in war. Discussing the various circumstances in which sexual violence is accepted, prohibited and tolerated, Wood reviewed the social dynamics under which each of the three situations arise.
Ultimately, Wood said, she found that combatting sexual violence in war requires a prohibition from a leader and strong institutions or disciplinary systems that encourage individuals not to engage in the behavior.
Flowers then presented on the impact of sexual violence on women of color, opening with a scene from her play “From Ashes to Angel’s Dust: A Journey Through Womanhood.” A survivor of sexual assault herself, Flowers combined personal stories, videos and photos to explain why women of color do not report their experiences. She cited reasons such as loyalty and collusion, shame and misogynoir — a form of misogyny directed at African-American women in which gender and race play a role. Still, Flowers highlighted the importance of self-care and concluded her talk with a discussion of her own healing process.
“Healing is possible and accessible,” Flowers told the News after the event. “It does take work to heal, but it’s possible with community [support]. I would also say [to victims of sexual violence] tell your story, because when you tell your story, you give other people the courage to tell theirs. Don’t be silent.”
When asked how the Yale community can come together and improve the sexual climate on campus, Flowers cited the need to open conversations about masculinity and gender. Sexual violence comes down to issues of power and control, she said, and discussing power dynamics would be “a great place to start.”
Brodsky, the final speaker of the day, gave a brief talk on her experiences as a plaintiff in a 2011 Title IX compliance suit brought against Yale by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. As a result of that complaint, Yale dramatically revised its sexual misconduct policies, including creating the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.
Five attendees interviewed after the conference agreed that what drew them to the event was the cause of supporting survivors of sexual violence.
Clara Yang ’17 said the town hall meeting last Monday prompted her to think about the climate on Yale’s campus, but she attended the conference because she is also interested in hearing outside perspectives.
Price also said that while the town hall was a discussion about issues specific to Yale, the conference hoped to take a broader look at sexual misconduct from a variety of perspectives. The goal was to promote conversations that lead to tangible change, Price said.
Hogg said USAY wants to make sure that people know there are others on this campus who care about these issues and that survivors feel supported by communities outside of their immediate social groups.
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Director of the Office of Gender and Campus Culture Melanie Boyd said she was impressed by the number of students who attended the event, as well as by the various speakers, adding that she particularly appreciated Flowers’ political take on the necessity of self-care.
“It was great to see so many students turn out — early on a Saturday morning, no less — to learn more about sexual violence,” Boyd said. “The conference had an excellent range, drawing on faculty, outside speakers and students to address the issues from a variety of angles.”
University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler also said she was “pleased” to attend the conference and see the level of campus interest. She added that she “learned a lot” not only from the speakers but also from her conversations with students in attendance.
Aakeem Andrada-Allahjah ’18, the incoming vice president of Sigma Nu and a conference attendee, said his biggest takeaway from the event is the importance of showing unconditional support and love for survivors. He added that members of Sigma Nu have also been holding each other accountable as a group: Communication and Consent Educators have hosted training sessions for the current pledge class, and USAY also organized a workshop for the fraternity.
The conference closed on Saturday afternoon with final remarks from the USAY board. Though the media has displayed Yale as a divided campus following the fallout of the Montague case, Price said, the diversity of the Fearless Conference’s attendance indicated that this is not the case.
“This is our community, our home, and we all have responsibility,” Price said.
Maya Sweedler contributed reporting.