On an unseasonably brisk Thursday night, Take Back the Night Ann Arbor — an organization dedicated to advocating for survivors of sexual violence — hosted its 43rd annual rally to educate community members on sexual violence and to encourage action.
About 50 student volunteers and community members donning purple “Take Back the Night” sweatshirts and bundled up scarves and mittens formed a loose semicircle before the steps of Hatcher Graduate Library to begin the rally. A Youtube live stream of the event was also made available to allow visibility for those unable to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Pam Swider, Take Back the Night Ann Arbor community leader, told the crowd that this year marks her 13th year running the annual rally and march. As a survivor of sexual violence herself, Swider is also the founder and executive director of Standing Tough Against Rape Society.
Swider works directly with University Students Against Rape, an organization on campus aimed at raising awareness of sexual assault and violence through rallies, marches and prevention events. She was also involved in acquiring a city permit to march Thursday evening amid the pandemic and ensured COVID-19 safety precautions were followed by volunteers and attendees.
“I started becoming so concerned because I knew how it was affecting survivors, especially those who have to spend the pandemic with their perpetrators, or around people who have no idea how to support them,” Swider said in an interview with The Michigan Daily before the event.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, one in five women and one in 38 men experience completed or attempted rape in their lifetime in the United States. The report also found that one in three women and one in four men experience at least one incident of some form of sexual violence in their lives.
26.4% of undergraduate women experience rape or sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Swider said marginalized groups, such as people of color — in particular Black women — and the LGBTQ+ community need allies and supporters in the fight against sexual violence.
“We need to use the privileges that we have to speak when they can’t,” Swider said. “We need to let them know that they are not alone.”
Because of the intensification of sexual and domestic violence against women during the pandemic, Swider said she found it incredibly important to try to make this an in-person event after last year’s virtual rally. Considering how quarantine and physical isolation have had a negative impact on domestic violence in the past year due to individuals being forced to stay home with their abusers, Swider said Take Back the Night Ann Arbor decided on the theme “take action” for this year.
Recent University alum Emma Wellman was a student leader who helped organize this event, ensure distancing guidelines were followed and raise funding for the speakers’ equipment.
Though adjusting to the pandemic was a challenge, Wellman said she was proud of the adaptability and progress she made alongside her team members throughout the past year to successfully put together a safe in-person rally.
”What I’m most proud of is everybody really came together,” Wellman said. “My biggest hope is just that people feel really empowered.”
USAR student leader Kaitlyn Colyer, LSA junior, said adjusting to a virtual environment and in-person restrictions this year required a lot of planning on how to still make the event impactful.
“This issue very much still matters,” Coyler said. “We’re seeing it in the news today that sexual violence is something that happens to everyone, and it doesn’t matter your identity. So it’s important to us that we’re uplifting survivor voices and also making them stand against what’s going on.”
Nicole Denson, event MC and MOSAIC Collective Consulting, LLC founder, spoke to the crowd about how Take Back the Night has become a global movement to raise awareness around the prevalence of sexual violence while also providing a forum for survivors of sexual violence.
Denson said she still remembers her first Take Back the Night when she was a student at Michigan State University, which helped launch her passion for activism.
“I saw people being brave and speaking their truth,” Denson said. “And from where I came, that was something that I could only dream about. And that was the start of my activism.”
Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor also spoke at the event, saying that the city plans to declare a proclamation that says April will now be Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Ann Arbor.
“We support survivors everywhere,” Taylor said. “We (want to) ensure that those who choose to come forward are treated with seriousness and compassion. Sexual harassment and violence by men burdens and devastates the lives of women and girls and children every single day.”
Karasten Birge, also on the STARS board of directors, explained how her own experiences as a survivor inspired her to help create the new program “Sweaters for Survivors,” which donates comfortable clothes and other personal care items that will then be provided to examiners to give to survivors to wear home.
Birge shared that after she was sexually assaulted, she was brought to the hospital and asked to provide her statement multiple times, making her uncomfortable.
“I was given disposable scratchy hospital scrubs,” Birge said. “I had no bra or underwear. It would be nice for a hospital to be able to give survivors something warm to put on like a sweatshirt, sweatpants, new undergarments and a care package with soap, toothbrush or toothpaste. Those are the little things that are big things after going through something so awful.”
STARS is partnering with St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor in Washtenaw County and Avalon Healing Center in Wayne County to create “Sweatshirts for Survivors.”
“This will give them back some dignity and grace they so desperately deserve after making that brave choice to just get justice for the violence that was committed against them,” Swider said.
The rally’s keynote speaker was feminist author Jaclyn Friedman, who shared a prerecorded Zoom message about her experiences with advocacy and gave advice to the audience on authentic leadership and activism for survivors.
“We want to be really, really clear about something (about) being a survivor,” Friedman said. “It doesn’t obligate you to anything. So, you don’t have to do or be any kind of way to be a valid, important survivor who is worthy of love and justice and care.”
Friedman also said there are many ways to help uplift sexual violence survivors, specifically finding a smaller sub-issue that is more feasible to tackle. She gave advice on how to effectively take care of mental health concerns that come with a sensitive topic like sexual violence.
“It’s so important for all of us to make time to rest for healing for self-care, yes, but also community care when we take care of each other,” Friedman said. “We all grow stronger together, rest and heal and take care of each other and ourselves.”
Armed with bucket drums, megaphones and homemade signs, students and community members first marched west on South University Avenue towards State Street. Police in cars and motorcycles bookended the protestors, flashing blue and red lights.
Students took turns leading chants, such as “What do we want? Safe streets! When do we want it? Now!” As the crowd began turning north on State St., another chant rang out: “However we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes, No means no!” When the march reached Williams St., the crowd held a moment of silence for victims of sexual assault. Afterward, the protestors resumed chanting ”2,4,6,8 No more violence, no more hate!”
When addressing the crowd, Swider discussed what she hopes participants take away from the rally.
“We hope that we can educate you and inspire you, empower you,” Swider said. “And for those of you who are survivors, let you know that healing is possible and that you are never alone.”