Eastern Students ‘Take Back the Night’ Against Sexual Assault

Take Back the Night keynote speaker Michael Bidwell of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Eastern Connecticut spoke with students about using their voices to take a stand against sexual assault.

Written by Jolene Potter

Eastern Connecticut State University students, faculty and staff took a stand against sexual assault, domestic violence and other forms of interpersonal violence in October with a series of events focused on increasing awareness and response to survivors.

The events were hosted in collaboration with the Arthur L. Johnson Unity Wing, Women’s Center and Sexual Assault & Interpersonal Violence Response Team (SAIV-RT), illustrating the collective approach of Eastern in addressing interpersonal violence.

Sexual violence and domestic violence are major public health concerns that plague communities and families across the nation and the globe. The statistics are staggering – every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted and nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.

On Oct. 23, Eastern hosted 2, 90-minute sessions of Students Fight Back, a program that teaches tools for bystander intervention, awareness, personal safety, intuition and the basics of self-defense. The motto for the program was “The best fight is the one never fought.” Acknowledging survivors attending the program, keynote speaker Nicole Snell said, “We want to help survivors work through their trauma and reclaim their personal power.”

Nicole Snell of Girls Fight Back presented “Students Fight Back,” a gender-neutral class about using you intuition, being an active bystander and consent.

The program also provided an in-depth discussion of consent, including how consent is clear, unambiguous and verbal. “Firstly, silence is not consent,” said Snell. “‘No’ is a complete sentence. Anything said afterwards is a negotiation and there is no negotiation with people who don’t respect our boundaries.” Students gained a clear understanding of consent as ongoing, verbal, coherent and retractable at any time.

Students Fight Back encourages students to define their own personal boundaries and safety. “You are the expert of your own personal safety,” said Snell. “Who better than you to make decisions about your safety?”

On Oct. 29 from 6-8 p.m., Eastern held Take Back the Night, a march, rally and speak-out for survivors and allies of sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence. Take Back the Night is an international event and non-profit organization with the mission of ending sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual abuse and all forms of sexual violence.  

“Intimate partner violence, sexual violence and stalking are a huge problem in this country, causing victims, as well as witnesses and bystanders, in every community to suffer incalculable pain and loss,” said Starsheemar Byrum, coordinator of Eastern’s Unity Wing and SAIV-RT. “It is important that we come together and take action on spreading the word and educating each other about these issues.”

The event has grown significantly from prior years, with a line of students outside of the Student Center Theatre wanting to support survivors and share their stories. “It is incredibly moving to see so many people show up to support survivors of violence,” said a student who shared her experience with the crowd. “When survivors speak out, even despite immense fear, they put a face and a story behind issues that are often shrouded in statistics or silenced altogether. It is an extremely courageous thing for anyone to do.” 

Support persons from Eastern’s SAIV-RT, Women’s Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, and Police Department attended the event to inform students of available resources and stand in solidarity with survivors of trauma.

For the Clothesline Project, survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence made t-shirts to show support for those impacted by interpersonal violence.

Eastern also collaborated with multiple local organizations and non-profits to increase the network of support for students. Sexual assault crisis counselors and advocates from the Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Eastern Connecticut (SACCEC) were also in attendance, including college advocate Allison Occhialini, who offered support to survivors who shared their stories.

SACCEC is a private, non-profit agency offering free and confidential services to victims of sexual assault and abuse through crisis intervention, advocacy, counseling and prevention, and community education.

Representatives from the United Services Domestic Violence Program also attended to offer services and words of encouragement to students who may be struggling with or know someone in a domestic violence situation.

United Services provides the only domestic violence shelters and services in Northeastern Connecticut. They offer a wide array of services designed to respond to the needs of domestic violence victims and their children throughout their journey to become free of abuse.

Although Take Back the Night is usually an annual program held in April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Eastern’s community united to offer the event in October as well in commemoration of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. “We wanted to offer the program again this fall because we all have a role in hearing survivors and ending interpersonal violence on campus,” said Byrum.

As a visual display of survivor support, Eastern also launched the Clothesline Project. Displayed from Oct. 25-31, the project displays shirts with messages and illustrations designed by survivors of sexual assault, dating violence and domestic violence. The purpose of the project is to increase awareness, destabilize stereotypes about “victims,” celebrate survivor strength and to provide another avenue to courageously break the silence that often surrounds these experiences.