More than 100 anti-sexual assault student activists from 14 different public and private colleges and universities across Michigan attended a conference in the Michigan Union Saturday aimed at connecting student activists and encouraging organizational collaboration.
The event, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, was the first of its kind on campus. Organizers said it offered a unique opportunity for representatives from different institutions to meet with other student activists and share their experiences of working for sexual assault prevention organizations.
“This is the first time in history that all of these schools have come together.” Public Policy senior Emma Zorfass, the event coordinator, said. “We are trying to use our collective activism to make our respective communities stronger. So we are doing a lot of activities that involve networking, coming up with different ideas.”
Each school’s representatives participated in a Share Out session about their work. Schools also created informational guides about their sexual assault prevention organization to distribute, which included information about the number of volunteers, their organizational structure and their goals.
A focus of the Share Out was facilitating a dialogue between different types of institutions, such as private Christian colleges like Hope College in Holland, Mich., as well as commuter-heavy schools like the University of Michigan campuses in Flint and Dearborn. Hope College junior Elena Galano said the Christian mission of the college is present in the sexual assault prevention organization as well.
“At Hope College, since it is a Christian school, we are focused on living the Christian mission,” Galano said. “And we believe that being aware of the needs of our students and being mindful of their health, well-being and safety goes hand-in-hand with our faith. If you believe that every person is a child of God, then you should believe that every person deserves respect and deserves to live in an environment where they do not feel threatened.”
UM-Flint senior Julia Norris said the nature of her campus as a primarily commuter school influences the orientation and goals of the sexual assault prevention organization there.
“We do have a small population of students that choose to live on and around campus at UMich Flint, but most choose to live away from campus,” Norris said. “We have roughly one-third of our student population that are non-traditional students, those with families, or those who work in addition to being students. So getting people to become engaged with campus life can be difficult. One way that we want to get more involved with our student body is by getting into the classroom and educate people on sexual assault and bystander intervention.”
The conference participants additionally listened to student volunteers from all participating schools on how each program is operated, and they educate the student body on issues of sexual assault, rape and sexual violence.
“It is interesting to hear from representatives of other institutions at this event,” said LSA freshman Eve Hillman, a SAPAC volunteer. “Especially since how established SAPAC is on campus here, and some other organizations are just getting off the ground. So it’s great for us to engage with them, but also, since these groups may still be new, they have a lot to offer. I have seen so many people here with great ideas about how to get different demographics of people on campus involved.”
Each institution’s representatives provided examples of ways their organization interfaced with student government, and university administration. In particular, effective communication with university policy makers was emphasized by each organization.
LSA junior, David Schafer, CSG president-elect, said he appreciated the chance to meet with individuals from around the state and talk about often underlooked issues.
“Now it’s just a matter of taking the conversations that we had and furthering them, and institutionalizing these goals,” Schafer said.
Keynote speaker Alex Ngo, a University alum who studies social work at the University of Chicago, spoke broadly about intersectional activism, and about their traumatic experiences with sexual assault, as well as struggles with marginalization as a genderqueer person.
Ngo emphasized the importance of accepting all types of people in student activism to the audience, warning that failing to engage society’s most vulnerable groups often leaves the most marginalized unheard and misunderstood.
“By speaking out and sharing my experiences as a survivor of sexual assault, I learned to heal from the margins, instead of running away from them,” Ngo said.
Ngo connected the topics of inclusion and intersectionality with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a recent North Carolina law that prevents specific anti-discrimination rules for LGBT people for public accommodations and restroom use, and Kesha’s legal battle with her producer, Dr. Luke, who was accused of sexual assault.
Ngo ended their speech by urging the audience to not lose sight of the human side of activism.
“We have to make sure that we center our activism around love in a way that helps with everyone’s health and well-being,” Ngo said.