On Thursday, October 26, students, faculty, and administrators gathered under gray skies outside the College Center for Vassar’s now-annual Take Back the Night events. Take Back the Night is an international movement which began in the late-1970’s to protest incidents of sexual violence. It is most active in American cities and on college campuses, where many groups collaborate with the Take Back the Night organization or organize under the title.
Vassar’s Take Back the Night was especially pressing and poignant as it fell at the end of October. October is now Relationship Violence Awareness Month, and for many students, Halloween celebrations can present dangerous situations around sexual safety. Darci Siegel, a sophomore intern at the Women’s Center and primary organizer of the event with Cece Bobbitt, framed Take Back the Night with these markers while she emphasized that conversations around sexual violence must continue. She maintained that we can “never settle,” that we can “mold the world into what we want and know it can be.” Ashley Hoyle, senior co-Chair of the Traditions Committee, reminded those present that we are powerful together, in community, and that “radical acts of empathy and love” should be the basis of the college’s programs and policies.
Many adults from Vassar’s community also spoke. New President Elizabeth Bradley noted that “most women can’t get to [her] age” without experiencing interpersonal violence or sexual assault. She staked her positionality by saying, “Me too.” Jodie Castanza, Director for LGBTQ and Gender Resources, described the importance of awareness rallies in her own healing process. She maintained that interpersonal violence occurs across genders, orientations, class, race, and other identities, and is never okay. Ed Pittman ‘82, Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life & Diversity, expressed sorrow that sexual assault was an issue on campus when he was hired in 1990 and remains a serious concern; he also acknowledged the responsibility of men to change environments and change minds by having hard conversations. ALANA Center Director Wendy Maragh Taylor read an incredibly moving account of her years providing counseling for survivors, and led the group in a collective scream.
After two songs from Isabel Furman on guitar and vocals, we walked in a slow procession, with glowing candles, to hold a banner—which usually hangs in the Women’s Center—at the front entrance of Main. It reads, “Take Back the Night / Break the Silence / End the Violence.” Many of the organizations represented at last week’s event are working to do just that, and the charged, supportive space attested to their steps in the right direction.
Below, in transcribed interviews, students and staff share thoughts and information on their activities to end interpersonal violence at Vassar.
Darci Siegel, sophomore, Women’s Center Intern
Darci Siegel: I do a lot of work around awareness around sexual violence and domestic violence, and I also do a lot of work with women of color on campus, and activism in providing safe spaces, encouraging spaces, inspiring spaces for women of color.
Saskia Globig: How did you get this idea to continue this event? Because other schools do it, too, so maybe if you could share some of your inspiration or how you started organizing it?
DS: Vassar has done Take Back the Night in the past—I actually just met someone who worked here twenty-seven years ago and said that they did it when she worked here and it’s great to see that we’re still doing it. But last year in October, that was when Brock Turner was released from jail—he was the person involved in the Stanford rape—and at that time, I was pretty devastated. I’m a survivor of interpersonal violence, myself, and also being a first-year student who was new to the resources and the different centers on campus, I wasn’t really sure what there was in terms of finding community and finding support. So since I was working with the Women’s Center and still am, I decided to utilize my position there, and we, in about three weeks, organized this Take Back the Night rally. And last year, it was a lot of students from different organizations just coming together and listening to administrators speak, listening to one another speak, and this year, we have a lot of student organizations here and we have a lot of identity orgs that have contributed by giving ideas for the event, by advertising the event to their communities, or who came and spoke today. So what we really wanted to do and emphasize at this year’s rally was that sexual violence unfortunately happens to people of all genders, of all races, of all sexual identities and orientations, and we wanted to give a voice to that here on campus and make sure that everyone feels seen and heard; everyone can come together in solidarity and action.
SG: That’s so good to know that that’s happening… What’s the level of responsibility?
DS: Because of my position in the Women’s Center, I feel a more urgent sense of wanting to continue the conversation and using the Women’s Center space and the resources, like Jodie, and SAVP, that I have a close connection with, but you know, Vassar is Vassar and everyone’s busy, everyone has a million things going on, so it’s finding the ways to keep people engaged in ways that are meaningful to them. And so I do take, in my work around sexual assault, a survivor-centered approach, as do the people in SAVP and Title IX. So, besides doing Take Back the Night rallies, it’s really talking to survivors and seeing, what do they think they would benefit most from? Creating safe spaces where we can sit and have coffee, or, another big rally or a big workshop or having a speaker, or having changes in the training for athletes around bystander intervention, or improving the SAVP trainings for House Teams. So, it’s always a work in progress. It’s always changing depending on who’s here and who’s working with me, but I think it’s really great and the conversation really should go on.
Jodie Castanza, Director for LGBTQ and Gender Resources (LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center)
Saskia Globig: How was it to come to Vassar and have this be an event that colleges do, with you just coming in? [Castanza has been at Vassar for just over a year.]
Jodie Castanza: We actually hadn’t done it in a while. Darci—I hired her last year as an intern, as a first-year student—came in really fired-up about wanting to do it, and she made it happen. So it definitely is an event that happens on different campuses, and it happens in lots of different ways. Some campuses do candle-light walks through campus, and some campuses do rallies, and all sorts of things. Some campuses do nothing at all. So Darci just really made it the event that she wanted it to be. And then this year she worked with another intern [Cece Bobbitt] to make it happen again.
SG: Can I ask what that button means?
JC: Yes. [The pin on her jacket reads] I am a SART Advocate, which means I’m a part of the Sexual Assault Response Team, which means I am a non-mandatory reporter. I’m a confidential source for people. Usually they call the CRC [Campus Response Center], and the CRC gets ahold of us, but someone could always come to my office or my space and know that I am someone they could confidentially talk to about sexual assault, intimate partner violence, any issues like that, and I do not—I am not required to report it to the college.
SG: So kind of the opposite of the mandatory or responsible reporters?
SG: Could you talk about how that’s “turned off” for this event?
JC: Yeah, so in a space where education is being provided, then any employees who are on-site are not considered mandated reporters during that time. So, if someone were to go up to the microphone and tell their story, none of us would be mandated to then report it to the Title IX office. Whereas, at another event, if that were to happen, if it wasn’t educational in nature, then we would potentially. Or someone could find one of us because of the button, or another SART advocate, and they might say, “I need to talk to you,” or “I need to talk to someone,” or someone might walk their friend over and say, “I know Jodie’s an advocate,” and in that setting, if they were to walk over to someone who wasn’t an advocate, that person also would not be a mandated reporter—in this setting. As soon as the event’s done, they would be.
SG: Anything else you want to say?
JC: No, that’s it—just that I’m super proud of the students. This is an amazing event—so many people have worked together, all the different orgs and different groups… it’s been really amazing to watch it grow.
Latasha Smith, Metcalf therapist
Saskia Globig: Why are you here? Could you talk about what your role or interest in this is?
Latasha Smith: I am here because I was invited to come by the organizers, to provide some support for students who might need it—after the event, during the event, whether that’s direct support or whether that’s just my presence, being here, but it feels helpful to know that a counselor is here.
SG: Do you feel especially devoted to helping people who’ve experienced sexual assault?
LS: I do. This is something that’s important and that I feel is very close to what I care about, in terms of rights, and choice, and boundaries, and people respecting that.
Isabel Furman, she/her/hers, junior, President of Vassar Voices for Planned Parenthood
Vanessa Rosensweet, she/her/hers, junior, org member and Women’s Center Intern
Saskia Globig: I’m wondering, because Planned Parenthood is an organization that’s obviously outside Vassar and bigger than Vassar, how did you connect with them, how did you get them here?
Isabel Furman: I reached out to them. I went to one of their open meetings in January of last year and I got in contact with their outreach team, and I told them I was from Vassar and I was interested in planning a benefit concert on campus, and then I closely worked with the public affairs coordinator while I was planning the benefit concert. So that’s how we kind of developed that relationship. And then I went on a trip with her, so we connected, and she’s been on campus a lot, she does a lot of work here; whenever Planned Parenthood tables, she’s the one doing it, so we connected through that.
SG: What is the significance that you feel being here? What do you think it does for students on campus generally, and maybe for this event?
IF: I think something that I kind of struggled with when I was thinking about how to construct this org was that supporting Planned Parenthood is kind of an unspoken fact for a lot of folks. I think that they kind of just agree, like, “Yeah, we support Planned Parenthood,” but they’re not necessarily going to be active about it, so this is really an invitation for folks to get active about it because it’s not an unspoken fact in a lot of places and we’re really lucky that it is here. And of course when I say “unspoken fact,” I still acknowledge that there are people on this campus who don’t support Planned Parenthood, but the goal is to make our presence known in a way that’s active and inviting.
SG [to Vanessa Rosensweet]: Is there anything you want to say about how it ties into your work in the Women’s Center?
VR: Something that’s really important to the work that the Women’s Center does is that we want people to know more about the resources that we have on campus, and so it’s sort of like a chain of connections: we brought Planned Parenthood’s presence here, and through the Women’s Center we really want to bring those kinds of resources to the campus. And so something that I’m focusing on in particular is getting people in the Center physically. That’s something really important to me, just so people can be exposed—we have a ton of brochures there, and we want people to know that that place exists, and why we’re here, essentially. So it’s a really strong connection. I hope it grows over time.
Izzy Braham, she/her/hers
Isabella Perez, she/her/hers
Nina Salvatore, she/her/hers
Jade Smith, she/her/hers
Saskia Globig: I’m just wondering how you see your involvement with this event. Anything you wanna talk about with why you’re here?
Nina Salvatore: It was definitely important for us that we had a presence at this event and showed our support, because this is a really important issue and it’s all-encompassing, and we really talk about a lot of different issues in Fem Alliance, so we just wanted to make sure that people know that we’re a resource and we’re here to talk, always.
Izzy Braham: What we’re doing here is this little photo project. Cece [Bobbitt, Women’s Center Intern] was able to find this really cool artifact in the Women’s Center. I think it’s just from four years ago. It’s people holding signs that say, “Consent is important,” and “No means no,” and raising awareness about the issue. So we actually found the old signs, and so we were going to use those, and new signs, too, and take more photos and keep adding to it.
SG: Do you feel like you end up taking about sexual assault and other relationship issues a lot? Is that one of your common topics?
IB: We definitely so talk about it. We talk a lot about Title IX, and how that manifests itself on campus.
NS: We talk a lot about gender dynamics and things that contribute to the culture overall.
Jade Smith: We also keep up with current events, so with the Harvey Weinstein situation, as new events come to light, this keeps being reinforced. And because of Halloween—it is “Halloweekend”—it’s a very terrifying time on campus for a lot of people.
SG: Could you say a little more about the function of Fem Alliance? Because you said you’re here as a resource for people to talk…
IB: We have discussion meetings, and those are open. Our role on campus this year has been a lot of weekly discussions about any type of issue that we find ourselves caring about. I remember at the beginning of the year I remember we had a little poster we put up, and everyone came around and put different ideas for discussions. So it ranges from anything from pop feminism to Harvey Weinstein current events, and things dealing with heavier issues such as sexual assault. But I think our role is to foster discussions about important issues, but also partake in activism and ways in which we can make [people aware] of those issues, especially here on campus. So that’s why we were really excited to table for this event.
NS: The discussions are strong, but I’d say we are working towards activism more, and more boots-on-the-ground work. ‘Cause it’s needed. It’s obviously needed.
SG: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
JS: Stay safe.
Ashley Carey, Co-President
Julietta, first-year member
Saskia Globig: I see you have some stuff you’re giving out… If you could, it you want to talk about your role in this event?
Ashley Carey: CHOICE is the Campus Health Organization for Information, Contraceptives, and Education. Part of safer sex and sexual health is consent and healthy relationships. I feel like it’s a part people might overlook when they’re thinking about sexual health, but that is something that we encompass in our org. We are all-encompassing of all aspects of sexual health and healthy relationships. So we were really happy to come here tonight and talk about that. We had pamphlets on that provided by Planned Parenthood, and we’re just really excited to get our word out and talk about this issue because it is a big issue, especially on college campuses and it needs to be talked about.
[to Julietta] Did you like the event? I know this was your first time…
Julietta: I didn’t really know what to expect. I was just very impressed. I didn’t know if people would be speaking and stuff like that. It’s always just interesting to hear people’s sides of stories, either adults or students. I was just really impressed by how many people came out. We were talking about the diversity of people that came out: femmes, masculine people… it’s great that people are coming together over this issue.
SG: The dovetailing of your org and this event is to keep people safe from all the different facets of [sexual violence] that I wouldn’t necessarily think about, so what kind of programs do you so outside of actual contraceptives?
AC: Besides providing contraceptives for campus, we do cohost a lot of events with the Office of Health Education, with the Women’s Center, LGBTQ center. This semester we’re going to have our “Love Heals” event. It’s going to be December 1st. It’s about HIV and AIDS awareness—it’s actually on World AIDS Day. And then in the Spring we always have another event. It’s usually about pleasure, but also still sexual health within pleasure and being safe. We work with Planned Parenthood, the new Planned Parenthood org, which is amazing. And then we work with QCVC when they bring STI testing to campus, because that’s a very important part of sexual health. So while we don’t provide that ourselves, we do provide the resources to getting them.
Rica Shukla, she/her/hers, sophomore
Kelly Vinett, she/her/hers, sophomore
Saskia Globig: There are so many orgs at this event that deal with sexual health and sexual assault at Vassar, and so I’m wondering what the origins of YES were and what your purpose is this year.
Rica Shukla: So it was started last year by two sophomores, Sophie and Casey, and it was kind of an offshoot of the bystander intervention training. They noticed that there were a lot of problems with that and overall with how people talked about sexual assault on campus, and the actions taken by students and administration. So it was very small when it started last year. They reached out to people at the ALANA Center, LGBTQ Center—that’s how I found out about it—and then now I guess we’re focusing more on proactive, direct action, because a lot of amazing orgs on campus are more about creating spaces for survivors, and healing. All of that is wonderful but we also wanted to actively change the reality on campus.
Kelly Vinett: And I guess we’re also trying to bridge the gap between the administration and the students, because there’s definitely a lack of transparency that we’re trying to resolve, and by having strength in numbers and brainstorming what we can actually do as students and not always having to rely on the bureaucracy of Vassar is a really big deal to us and we’re trying to really get that message across.
SG: I’ve heard you’ve done a lot of work with getting real statistics, that they’re really hard to find, and YES actually uncovered a lot of stuff. What are you using those for now?
RS: We organized a resource fair last year with pamphlets, so people would know about the resources but also the reality of sexual assault. A lot of it is making these pamphlets to help propagate the information, because the administration doesn’t make it easy to find it all. But at the moment, we’re waiting for the new data to come out from the Campus Climate Survey. It’s in the works.
SG: Have you ever gotten any push-back from the administration?
RS: It’s been a process. We’d been meeting a lot last year with [John] Chenette, to try to get this software on campus, and it was very difficult… This software called Callisto.
KV: It’s software that allows you to identify your perpetrator if you are a victim of sexual assault, through the means of Facebook. But it’s also just a software that costs thirteen thousand dollars…
RS: It’s a way to report for people who aren’t comfortable going to Title IX or talking to Charlotte [at SAVP]. There are ways to put timestamps on things, and also it lets you match your perpetrator, so you can be informed if someone else has the same perpetrator to strengthen your case. So we felt it was a very vital way… and just the act of buying that software and demonstrating that commitment to preventing sexual assault, we thought would be really important for the administration to show. But there was trouble… it was a back-and-forth.
KV: They didn’t want to pay. A lot of it was a lot of the administration, not even Chenette, because he was really in for it. One time we met with him and he started to cry. It was really powerful and we could really feel that he was with us in our mission.
RS: He did care.
KV: But then, when we went to the Title IX meetings, a lot of the administration was like, “Oh, well, we have so many computer scientists at Vassar, we can make our own.”
SG: They were just hedging?
RS: Yeah, they said they wanted to focus on funding the resources they already have, but then they got rid of Nicole at SAVP, so it just felt like they were…
SG: It makes no sense.
KV: It already takes survivors up to eleven months to even tell their friends they were violated, so going to someone at Vassar, especially an administrator, someone getting paid, often doesn’t feel confidential, even when it is.
SG: Do you want to say anything about how you’re involved with this event, or anything about tabling here? What was that like?
RS: I think this event is really important. Last year, this was when people first found out about YES. It’s a really good place, a gathering of people who are really committed to preventing sexual assault.
SG: Sort of grassroots-level.
RS: Yeah. I think using the momentum of this event really will help us power through whatever happens this semester.