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Content Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault.

The University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center’s (SAPAC) 37th annual survivor speak-out began with a moment of silence Sunday night. About 70 U-M community members came together at the Michigan Union’s Pendleton Room to share and listen to stories from sexual assault survivors. The crowd fell quiet as attendees paid respect to those impacted by sexual assault but were unable to attend the speak-out. 

The theme of this year’s event was “Metamorphosis.” In the spirit of the theme, attendees were invited to write anonymous positive messages and affirmations for survivors on butterfly-shaped sticky notes and attach them to a poster. 

“Thank you for sharing,” one note read. “You are so brave and I believe you.” 

All the lights in the Pendleton Room were dim, but the space was aglow with fairy lights and glow sticks held by each of the guests, who waved them in support of each speaker instead of applauding. 

Speakers shared poems, affirmations and stories addressing their experiences with intimate partner violence, sexual assault, stalking and the long-term impacts of sexual violence on mental health. Anonymous submissions were also read aloud by SAPAC volunteers. To protect the privacy of the speakers and at the request of event organizers, The Michigan Daily will not be publishing any quotes shared at the event.

In an interview with The Daily, LSA senior Thiany Riddihough, co-coordinator of SAPAC’s Survivor Empowerment and Ally Support program (SEAS), said it was important to  allow survivors to participate in any way they felt comfortable.

“I think the real significance of this event is allowing survivors to come and be in a space where they don’t have to share,” Riddihough said. “They’re not required to do anything, but they can sit with people in the community they know that feel love for them, feel empathy for them, and where they can feel comfortable to share their story if they want.”

Multiple attendees addressed the emotional trauma that accompanies experiences of sexual violence. They described feelings of isolation, anger, shame and grief, as well as struggles with mental illness. 

LSA senior Zoe Lainis, co-coordinator of SEAS, told The Daily that creating a safe space on campus for survivors to verbalize their stories is more important than ever.

“It’s just to know you’re not alone …  on this campus,” Lainis said. “We’ve had a lot of issues at this University with sexual assault, and so (the speak-out) reinforces that you are supported.” 

The U-M community has grappled with multiple cases of sexual assault and misconduct involving major University leaders coming to light in recent years. Over 1,000 survivors have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by former Michigan Athletics doctor Robert Anderson. Jonathan Vaughn, a survivor of Anderson, camped outside of the president’s house for over 150 days to protest the University’s handling of the Anderson case and has recently returned to the protest after his campsite was removed March 7.

In 2021, former American Culture professor Bruce Conforth was accused of sexual assault by six women, who sued Conforth in January for his actions and the University for failing to adequately protect them. Former University Provost Martin Philbert was also terminated from his position in 2020 after being accused of sexual misconduct by over 20 women. Multiple faculty members from the computer science department and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance have also been accused of sexual misconduct in recent years.

While speakers shared their stories, the audience often fell silent, sometimes for as long as 10 minutes. Sometimes silence, Riddihough said, can be more powerful than words. 

“Being an ally, it’s really important that you can sit and listen,” Riddihough said. “So I also feel like it gives people that tool to be able to maybe realize that when somebody discloses to you, or if you’re in a tough situation like this, sometimes you don’t need to respond. Sometimes you just need to listen and sit with them and hear them, and sometimes that can even speak louder than words.”

Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached