Viewpoint: SAPAC Open Letter

BY SAPAC

Published November 23, 2014

Trigger warning: this open letter addresses issues of sexual violence. Should you feel triggered by the content of this letter, or the circumstances surrounding its publication, please do not hesitate to reach out to an advocate at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, or to utilize SAPAC’s 24-hour crisis line at (734) 936-3333.

This letter is addressed to survivors of sexual violence on this campus — to those of you who chose to share the most vulnerable parts of yourselves at last week’s Speak Out, and to those of you whose process may not have brought you there yet, but who did the incredible work of bearing witness to each other’s stories.

Before we address our reasons for writing this letter, let us first take a moment to acknowledge your incredible strength. You perform an extraordinarily powerful act of rebellion every second you survive on this earth and on this campus. We say this not to patronize you, or to minimize your struggle or your hurt, but because we genuinely believe that survivors are among some of the strongest, most resilient people — while the wind is constantly against you, you continue to stand tall. As student staff and volunteers at SAPAC, we are in continuous awe of your fortitude.

Nov. 11 marked SAPAC’s 28th annual survivor Speak Out, an event that was meant to serve as a safe, confidential space for sharing, healing and growth. On a campus that so often drowns out the voices and wishes of survivors of sexual violence — your voices — with academic jargon and incomprehensible discourse that can distract the community from the core problems of sexual violence, Speak Out aims to create a space that is meant solely for you. Speak Out is clearly defined as a space where the confidentiality of your stories and identities are respected, and where your narrative and experiential knowledge are trusted absolutely. Speak Out should be a space where you are listened to, believed, validated, supported, and above all, respected. Unfortunately, some of the attendees of this year’s Speak Out chose to violate your safety and confidentiality in the moment and in days following.

During the Speak Out, organizers affiliated with the group BAMN: By Any Means Necessary, a self-defined civil rights group on campus, violated your safety by co-opting the space for their own and using what was intended to be a survivor forum to instead advertise for an upcoming demonstration and otherwise promote their own organization. In the last few days, it has also come to our attention that members of BAMN have been speaking in classes and, while similarly promoting an upcoming demonstration, have been retelling stories shared at Speak Out without the consent or knowledge of survivors. Not only is this an inappropriate violation of the terms of confidentiality agreed upon at the Speak Out, but it is also a gross transgression against those of you who shared your stories with the belief that your experience would be held confidential. Stealing these stories from you, robbing you of the ownership of your own experience, is reprehensible and once again takes power to make decisions about your experience out of your hands. As SAPAC volunteers, we stand firmly against these deplorable actions, and are absolutely devastated that a space we worked so hard to make a safe one was abused in this way. Please know that we have taken action to stop the spread of stories, and are continuing to work to ensure your safety and confidentiality. As members of an organization advocating for justice on structural, institutional, individual and interpersonal levels, we unequivocally support all movement toward civil progress, toward a safer and less hostile campus community for students of marginalized race, gender, class, sexuality, ability status or other identity. What we cannot and will not allow is for an organization to exploit your stories, your experiences or your shared vulnerability in the process. By treating you and your stories as no more than a means to a political end, BAMN has demonstrated, flat out, that it does not respect you or your experiences.

At SAPAC, we believe that as a survivor you have the right to tell your story when, where, and to whom you want as a measure of regaining power and control in what can often feel like an uncontrollable situation. We want you to be able to share your stories in any and every space in which you feel comfortable, and we strive in our work as SAPAC volunteers to create and maintain as many such spaces as possible. To that end, we invoke the absolutely imperative adherence to confidentiality not to further silence you, but to preserve your right to share your story on your own terms. We do not, by any means, claim that creating these spaces is enough, or that our work ends there. There is so much more work to be done around the issues of sexual violence in regards to policy, education, prevention and survivor support. However, this was not the goal or focus of the Speak Out, and survivors who attended the event were not necessarily attending with the knowledge or intention that your stories would be used in a context of political action. As a survivor, you should not be expected to bear the burden of doing that work. You deserve spaces in which you can simply exist, as your whole self, with the full truth of your experience. We recognize and affirm that all survivors may not be at a place in their recovery where it is physically and/or emotionally safe, comfortable or possible for you to do change-making work. This is what we at SAPAC envision to be our role in this movement — to advocate for and with survivors, so that the heavy burden of change does not always rest solely on your shoulders, when you are already carrying so much weight.

Overall, we want to apologize to you from the sincerest place in our hearts for this abhorrent violation of your trust and privacy. However, despite the sadness and frustration we feel over what has transpired, we want to once again thank each and every one of you who attended the Speak Out and shared your stories with us, as well as those of you who could not or did not share, but contributed your energy and your presence to the space. We hope that you still view Speak Out as a place where you can come to share your story and to find support from a community that can often feeling alienating. While we cannot undo the hurt that has been caused by BAMN’s actions, we are — both as individuals and as an organization — committed to creating and sustaining spaces that allow you to process, heal and grow in your own time and on your own terms. We want to continue to affirm and support you, your existence, your process and your individual experience as you traverse this issue — and we want you to know that you do not have to do it alone. We will be here, if and when you need us, every step of the way.

In Solidarity,
SAPAC Student staff and Volunteers

Co-Signers
Middle East and Arab Network
College Democrats
United Coalition for Racial Justice
Habitat for Humanity
U of M Students for Choice
Michigan Women of Color Collective
Camp Kesem Michigan
Groundcover News Student Group
South Asian Awareness Network

Cortney Kiyo Bouse, Graduate student School of Public Health
Austin McCoy, Rackham student
Rebecca Christensen, Rackham student
Nora Krinitsky, Rackham student
Jennifer Frederick, Rackham student
Molly Blakowski, Rackham student
Kathryn Abercrombie, LSA senior and CSG LSA Representative
Carly Manes, Public Policy senior
Ian Mark, LSA junior
Maja Tosic, LSA senior

The University Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center offers a variety of support and resources for survivors of sexual violence on campus, including personal and academic advocacy, connection to resources, help in navigating institutional policy and more. The SAPAC office is located at 2450 North Quad, and office hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday - Friday. SAPAC hosts a peer-led support group, which meets every Wednesday night 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. in the SAPAC office. Our 24-hour crisis line (734-936-3333) is available at all times for those in need of immediate assistance. For more information visit sapac.umich.edu, or do not hesitate to contact our office at (734) 764-7771. If you should feel the need to report an incident, please contact our Title IX Coordinator, Anthony Walesby; he can be reached at walesby@umich.edu. You can also contact his office, the Office for Institutional Equity, at (734) 763-0235, or at hr.umich.edu/oie/office.html. You can also contact the University’s Police Department by calling (734) 763-1131 or texting 377911. In an emergency, call 911.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed SAPAC's 24-hour crisis line as 734-963-3333.