There was no one scandal that prompted Nowmee Shehab, 22, to become heavily engaged in efforts at Emory University to create a supportive environment for survivors of sexual assault. She readily acknowledges that she doesn’t have a single, all-encompassing answer to the question of why she first got involved.
Elizabeth Neyman, 21, will be a senior at Emory this year and said that she “noticed that there weren’t adequate resources for survivors” and “wanted to be a part of the solution.” Still, it was more of a gradual recognition than a striking epiphany.
Both got involved not because of a specific horrific incident or a less-than-adequate university response, but instead because they both saw a widespread issue and were determined to make a difference.
A series of high-profile colleges and universities mishandling reported sexual assaults, the newly created White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and strong organizing efforts from students across the country has thrust the issue of campus sexual assault into the national spotlight.
Shehab and Neyman are just two of the many students who have pushed their campuses into action. Still, the tangible changes they have produced, alongside the less tangible but no less important transformations in conversations and attitudes, show the change-making power of millennials.
Neyman, for one, helped organize a group on her campus called Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA). Just a few years after the group’s inception, they’ve trained nearly 2,000 students on what to say, what not to say and how to support survivors of sexual assault.
That figure is all the more impressive considering that SAPA almost never existed. When its founders originally approached Emory’s student government to become a chartered organization, they were skeptically asked what made their club different from another group on campus that focused on prevention efforts. SAPA concentrates on helping survivors, but some members of the student government weren’t buying it.
Eventually, they were able to convince the hesitant members of the student government, and SAPA was born.
Shehab, meanwhile, was a coordinator for RespectCon, an annual conference at Emory that focuses on sexual violence. Originally founded in 2013, this year’s conference was themed Sexual Violence Prevention through a Social Justice Lens.
Simultaneously, Shehab led efforts to increase conversations about sexual assault within Emory Pride and worked as a programming assistant at the Center for Women on campus.
Neyman helped reform Emory’s sexual misconduct process. Originally, the same people who decided if a student who was caught cheating or imbibing should be suspended also dealt with sexual assault charges. The new policy changes this, because the intricacy of sexual violence requires that people be familiar with the subject to handle it well.
Additionally, Neyman has worked with Emory University Hospital, which serves tens of thousands of patients in the Atlanta area each year, to ensure that survivors of sexual assault who come to the hospital will have the resources they need. Starting in August, Emory University Hospital will offer increased resources to every survivor of sexual assault that walks through its doors.
Neyman and SAPA are also pushing for minimum sanctions on students who are found guilty of sexual assault.
The typical sentence, she noted, is a one-semester suspension, and no one convicted of sexual assault has been expelled in the last nine years. Of course, processes aren’t everything.
Neyman said that survivors of sexual assault have emailed administrators asking if their assaulters were returning to campus, only to be repeatedly ignored. That’s why Neyman and other activists have worked hard to transform attitudes on campus, because changes in policy, while an important and necessary step, will not solve everything.
Shehab agrees that there’s still room for improvement.
“Rape culture is not something people think about a lot,” she said. She points out the irony that many people feel comfortable telling a rape joke, but not talking about consent.
“There’s still a stigma attached to talking about consent,” she said.
Problems like these are why the recent report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is so important. While Neyman noted that she has already worked on implementing some of the recommendations from the task force, she also said that the she “has never felt this affirmed or validated.”
Shehab, who’s spending the summer interning for Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) through the Victory Congressional Internship program, said it’s “really awesome that the White House acknowledged the severity of the issue.”
Although the issue is attracting more and more attention across the spectrum, from the White House and others, Shehab noted that “it’s not like sexual violence has just increased. It’s always been there.”
Despite this fact, it’s hard to ignore the recent increase in awareness, media attention, and government resources being devoted to the issue. And when you ask yourself why, it’s difficult to imagine similar progress being made without the efforts of young people like Neyman and Shehab, who have helped propel campus sexual assault into the national discourse.
While Shehab is still figuring out what she plans on doing after graduation, she’s sure that she’ll remain involved with the issue.
“Everyone is affected by sexual violence. And it’s everyone’s job to prevent it,” she said.
Excerpted from a piece originally published by Generation Progress; see the whole story here.
Photo of Humanities Hall at Emory University from Flickr user Phil Tizzani under license from Creative Commons 2.0