Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My Hope for MIT

“Those who make us believe that anything’s possible and fire our imagination over the long haul, are often the ones who have survived the bleakest of circumstances. The men and women who have every reason to despair, but don’t, may have the most to teach us, not only about how to hold true to our beliefs, but about how such a life can bring about seemingly impossible social change. ”
Paul Rogat Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear

My Hope for MIT. Reflecting on the past when thinking about the future.

The year was 1986. I turned 16 and my world changed overnight. I had a license and a car and freedom. “Shoot we’re out of milk. I’ll go mom!” I can still remember the excitement and joy I felt when I would grab the keys and walk toward my 1979 light blue VW Rabbit.

I’m the youngest of 4 girls – my sister closest in age is 5 years my senior. In 1986, she was a 21 year old wild child. My sister could party and did so frequently. One night, she went clubbing and picked up a guy. I heard the whispers the next morning, driving drunk, the guy (a complete stranger) was in the hospital, my sister was in jail, her brand new car was destroyed.

Six years earlier, in 1980 a 13 year old girl named Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver in Fair Oaks California. The driver was a 46 year old man who left her body at the scene. Following this accident, it was discovered that he had previously been arrested for another DUI hit and run. Channeling her grief and outrage, Candace Lightner, Cari’s mother, founded MADD, Mother’s Against Drunk Driving.

Not until my sister’s accident in 1986 did drunk driving became a personal issue in my household. Up until that point, I hadn’t really given it much thought. I remember my freshmen year of high school, they parked a wrecked car on the front lawn of the school right before senior prom as a warning of what could happen if anyone drove drunk that weekend. I did what all my friends did, I walked by the car shaking my head and then promptly forgot about it. The reason is that one, isolated image and message was not enough to inspire us to think deeply about changing our behavior. And, I thought to myself, I would never drive drunk so this message isn’t really for me. I didn’t see myself as part of the problem and therefor as part of the solution.

Beginning in 1980 and building slowly at first, MADD was able to accomplish a transformative cultural shift. Out of tragedy, they managed to build a movement. The isolated tragedies became a public health issue.

·     Within a few years, we were seeing the stories of families who lost loved ones to drunk driving in movies and TV shows.
    They coordinated one week of all prime time comedies to tackle the issue in a story line.  Politicians were lobbying for stiffer penalties
·      the BAC legal limit was lowered technology was invented to track high-risk drivers
·      Designated Drivers became a standard
·      bar owners were held liable if someone was overserved at their establishment and drove drunk, and on and on.

And out of all this, within a few years, we saw a distinct shift in public opinion and the social norms around drunk driving. It became something we all felt responsible for stopping. “Dude, give me your keys, you’re not driving tonight” became the expectation.
It was 1999 and I was hired by Western Washington University to serve as the first sexual assault educator. What I saw was similar to my early high school recollections on drunk driving. People were universally against rape. No one argued in favor of sexual assault. But most people didn’t see a place for them in the discussion. If you saw yourself as neither a victim nor perpetrator, it was difficult to see how you could help end this private, hidden phenomenon known as “date rape.”

Over the course of a few years, I started to see a shift in the attitudes of victims. In the beginning, it was called “the click.” Groups of students who’d been assaulted started finding each other. Through support groups or, later, the internet, these women and some men were talking to each other. And what they started to hear from each other was the common thread that each felt responsible for what happened to them. I must have done something wrong. I must have sent the wrong message, worn the wrong clothes, said the wrong words. But as they spoke to each other, the click would happen. If it’s happening in such a consistent way to so many people, maybe it’s not the fault of the individual. Maybe there’s something larger happening.

And that realization began a new movement. We saw
·     college students uniting to force their schools to better address the problem public health experts studying prevention efforts to figure out what works – with the increased focus came grant money to study the problem with increasing federal mandates, companies started developing online training tools, climate surveys, and campus campaigns like Green Dot and MVP and 1 in 4 parent associations began demanding their daughters be protected by increased security, improved policies, and clear student conduct expectations faculty began organizing to lend their expertise and powerful voice the federal government started enforcing laws that had previously been on the books only and we saw for the first time the president and vice-president of the United States speaking out about non-stranger rape and telling the country “it’s on us.”
All of this gives me great hope. 

In 1999, I could never have imagined that within a few short years, we would see national conferences for every level of college administration devoted to the subject of sexual assault. For the last 4 years, Title IX has been the focus of the national and regional conferences for groups like college and university general counsels; the national association of student affairs; judicial officers; risk managers; college health care providers; mental health clinicians; drug and alcohol counselors; alumni affairs; and parent associations to name a few. A forceful coalition called Faculty Against Rape has formed.

At all levels, people are talking about what they can do to improve response and prevention efforts. This is a true model of how to address a crisis through a public health lens.

As Suzy Kassem writes about in Rise Up and Salute the Sun - “To really change the world, we have to help people change the way they see things. Global betterment is a mental process, not one that requires huge sums of money or a high level of authority. Change has to be psychological. So if you want to see real change, stay persistent in educating humanity on how similar we all are than different. Don't only strive to be the change you want to see in the world, but also help all those around you see the world through commonalities of the heart so that they would want to change with you. This is how humanity will evolve to become better. This is how you can change the world. The language of the heart is mankind's main common language.”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

This brings me to my hope for the future which is that this energy and focus on campus sexual violence begins to trickle down. Higher education has been highly criticized in its handling of sexual violence and gender discrimination. The result has been a vast improvement in the way this issue is handled. Although there is certainly plenty of work still left to do. What I hope is that we as a country begin to realize that the foundation for issues of sexual assault, rape, dating violence, and harassment is formed long before students set foot on our campuses. Consent and respect should not be new concepts for freshmen. Here’s my hope for the not too distant future:  parents are given the skills to instill these values in their children before they enter kindergarten
·         K-12 teachers are building on those lessons and age appropriate sexual health including consent, communication, respect, and the role of alcohol is taught every year at every level
·       Hollywood catches up with the times and we start to see less sexualized violence and scripted gender roles
·       we raise our girls knowing they are valued for more than their looks and their youth and their bodies. The only 2 professions where women actually out earn men in the same field are modeling and sex work. What does that tell us about the value we place on women?
·        and we raise our boys knowing they don’t need to wear the mask of aggression and power and violence and are capable of expressing the full range of human emotions. I was at a retreat with college students a few years ago. One of the activities was to break up into groups and create a performance on a theme. There were 5 teams of all men and each team was given the theme “act like a man.” All 5 groups did a performance depicting how they used violence (either early on in childhood or later in adolescence). We need to flip the script on what it means to act like a man.

I’ll close with one of my favorites by Arundhati Roy - “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” 
Arundhati Roy
Her breathing sounds like
·     California passing the law that consent is a required part of sex education in K-12.
·     It sounds like my 13 year old son telling his friend his comments about a girl were sexist.
·     It sounds like 3 MIT male students calling the VPR hotline with concerns that a new freshmen pledge made comments that made them think he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of consent.
·     It’s the MIT females who intervened when a girl from another school that they didn’t even know passed out at a party and they refused to leave her unattended.

There are so many of these stories that tell me change is on its way.

Sarah Rankin

Director and Title IX Coordinator