Sunday, May 31, 2009

Students Active for Ending Rape

An Interview with Margaret Mikkelsen, Executive Director of S.A.F.E.R. - Students Active For Ending Rape
By Jennifer Lauren, Fifty-Fifty Volunteer and Master's Degree Student

1. How did you come to work on raising awareness about rape, did you work on other issues or in other fields prior to working with SAFER?

I worked on this issue in college, and again during graduate school. I've also worked in the fields of education reform and maternity care policy.

2. Can you explain the specifics of your position at SAFER.

From 2006 through 2008, I was the Executive Director of SAFER, running the day to day operations, managing our programs, and leading our fundraising efforts. I am now on the Board of Advisors.

3. Is the main goal of Students Active for Ending Rape to raise awareness amongst youth, or is it also to change school policies that do not address this issue? Please share what you see as the agenda of this organization.

The main goal of SAFER is to have every college implement effective sexual assault policies. We work toward our goal by helping students build campus reform movements. Awareness-raising is part of our work, certainly, but policy reform is really the heart of it.

4. I was recently in attendance at the WAM! (Women, Action & Media) Conference in Cambridge, Boston. It was an informative, inspiring experience during which there was sessions that addressed rape, reproductive health, and other pertinent issues. However most of the people in attendance were activists, writers and students already aware of the importance of these issues. Is it important to SAFER? to reach out to diverse audiences beyond the feminist community? And if so, how does this organization approach that goal?

It's crucial that we do so, or we will not achieve our goal. Part of our training for students includes training on building diverse movements and reaching out to people who may not identify as feminist, womanist, or even activist. It's about finding common ground that sexual assault is a problem that can be addressed. But it's also about helping people understand the varying, intersecting oppressions that support rape culture.

5. Furthermore, is there a goal to reach out and educate men and boys about rape, and not just women and girls? If so, how does the educational campaign that is designed to reach males differ from the one that targets women and girls?

Since we're not an education organization, we don't do work that is specifically designed to educate men and boys. All our work is designed to help the activist, of any gender, who wants to make a difference on his or her campus. We do include some advice for men who are working in these movements who may not be aware of the privilege they bring to the table as men.

6. As an organization that deals specifically with the making the college campus more healthy and equal, how has the experience of working with different colleges and universities been? From your experience, how important is it to school administrators that they have an acceptable school policy and network on dealing with rape?

It really varies widely. I've encountered a broad spectrum of administrators, from those who are passionate about addressing the problem, to those who just don't see what we're talking about. Part of our work is helping students convince administrators that it is in the school's best interest to have a strong policy. Some administrators would rather deny the problem than face it head on. Students have to be savvy about how to approach these administrators.

7. What do you find is the most looming or most often encountered impediment in creating change in faulty school policies, and also changing mindsets?

There are so many, it's hard to pick! Victim-blaming culture is a huge one. It makes people feel safe and unaccountable if they can blame sexual assault on victims. Then they feel it won't happen to them, because they won't do whatever the victim did to "deserve" the assault, and they don't have to step up and take a stand against violence in their communities. Taking that first step, of saying no one "asks" to be assault, and admitting that the larger community has a role to play in stopping sexual violence, is a big first step, but it's a necessary one.

8. On the SAFER. website, students, concerned citizens and burgeoning activists can download a manual “Change Happens: A Guide to Reforming Your Campus Sexual Assault Policy.” There is also a SAFER. campus activist mentoring program and workshops. Can you speak about how you see the college landscape today in regard to activism, and in particular activism on this issue. Do you feel a difference in climate between activists of this current generation with those of past years?

Well, I'm really too young to comment on past generations! I graduated from college in the late 90s, and there was certainly a fair bit of campus activism going on. However, we weren't very sophisticated or organized. I think student activists today are very media-aware, and have access to amazing organizing training and tools. Different campus movements struggle with different things. Some with issues of diversity and privilege, others with a lack of clear goals or targets, some are co-opted too easily by administrators. But overall, I'm always impressed with the college activists I meet.

9. What are your thoughts on the growing role of the Internet and social media in the activist community?

I think it's great, but we can't over look the power of personal contact. I'm personally a big fan of that 20th century mainstay, the telephone.

10. Recently, on March 18, 2009, The New York Times published an article, “Teenage Girls Stand by Their Man” in which the writer Jan Hoffman found that the female high school students in the New York City school she interviewed largely sympathized with the singer Chris Brown who, as widely publicized, was arrested for domestic violence against his girlfriend. They also seem to blame the victim, singer Rihanna. The article goes on to discuss how their response is in keeping with the learned social signals we are taught as girls, that “What really matters is that we don’t destroy boys.” How does an organization like SAFER confront these problematic social signals?

See number 7! We have to always be talking about these issues, confronting them, asking hard questions, challenging each other. We do a lot of this on our blog, and also in trainings with students.

11. Does SAFER work in unison with other organizations that support the rights of women and girls, locally and internationally?

Absolutely. We've collaborated with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, FAIR Fund, Men Can Stop Rape, Gender PAC and others.

12. Rape is difficult for many to speak about, yet it continues to happen and most be dealt with. Are you optimistic or concerned about the current discussion going on now about what needs to be done about rape? Are you confident we are on the right path in confronting this issue and the more subtle social signals Hoffman talks about in her article?

Honestly, it depends on the day of the week. When I watch television, often I'm horrified. For example, we're big American Idol fans in my house. But when Ryan Seacrest referred to a group of female dancers as a male performer's harem, I was so angry. But then when I see a great article about sexual violence in a student newspaper, I'm hopeful. I guess I wouldn't do this work if I didn't believe we had a chance of winning!

13. What is one thing that the readers of Fifty-Fifty Leadership and The Equality Standard can do to raise awareness about this issue?

Speak up. Speak up when you see an ad that equates sexual violence with sex. Speak up when your kids are headed to college. Speak up when you learn an abstinence-only sex ed class is perpetuating traditional gender norms. Speak up when you hear someone blame a victim for being assaulted. Speak up when you hear someone excuse someone for committing assault. Call your alma mater, find out what they're doing about sexual violence. Withold your money if they aren't doing enough.I guess that was more than one thing!