Speaking Up, Speaking Out

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Photo from WNPR

Flowers and notes have covered the Women’s Table this week, a reminder of the emotion and tumult caused by the Senate hearings concerning sexual assault allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, ES ’87, LAW ’90. Amidst the most visible signs of protest were “We Believe” posters covering bulletin boards and the Rally for a Better Yale. Behind such initiatives? Solidarity with Survivors, an organization of student activists founded in the wake of the allegations against Kavanaugh. Valentina Connell, TD ’20, one of the main organizers behind the student group, speaks to the Yale Herald about Solidarity with Survivors’ inception and how it hopes to move forward.

YH: How quickly did this project come together after the first allegations by Christine Blasey Ford?

VC: This project actually started up on the Sunday when Deborah Ramirez made her allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, saying he perpetrated sexual misconduct in Lawrence Hall during their first year at Yale. Obviously that hit very close to home and I was really upset by it. As I was reading the New Yorker article, one of my friends, with whom I’d been talking a lot about Kavanaugh, [Akhil Rajan, BR ’21], texted me basically saying, “Did you see this latest allegation? What are we gonna do about it?” He thought that we needed to have something like a protest or a vigil. So that night both of us came up with a list of few students we knew who might be interested in organizing, thinking about some of the most impactful people we know on campus, people who had done organizing before for different things, like Engender, and people who had been vocal about sexual misconduct on campus. So we put all of them in a Facebook group chat of about 15 people and we texted them saying, “Hey, this most recent allegation has come out, we’re super upset by it and we want to do something. We have no idea what it’s going to look like or what we even want it to look like. Do we want it to be a rally or a protest? Should it be a vigil at night? Should it be outside Lawrence? We have all these questions that we have no answers to so let’s meet tomorrow and figure this out.” We encouraged people to add their friends who might be interested and also let people know that if it was too emotionally charged for them, or they didn’t want to participate in this because it’s a very triggering and traumatic subject, to feel free to distance themselves.

YH: What were the next steps the initial group took to materialize this idea?

VC: We set up a time for Monday night to meet. Less than 24 hours after the time we first made the group chat, it had doubled so now there were 30 people interested in organizing with us. So Monday night we came together at the Women’s Center and talked for about two and a half hours, going pretty late into the night. We articulated what we were responding to and what we were upset about. A lot of it was Kavanaugh but obviously it was also connected to the larger culture of complicity around sexual misconduct at Yale and general misogyny at Yale. I think the biggest thing we were responding to was the fact that the administration continues to allow these things to happen. We also crafted a list of goals as well as values we want to see in the community, such as deep respect, a culture of consent, or a culture of more than consent. On Tuesday, we had another meeting, where we planned what we wanted the rally to look like in more detail. Someone suggested having a silent gathering on Old Campus and then marching to the Women’s Table, which was very powerful. Then from Tuesday night all the way until the rally (on Wednesday afternoon), people were working nonstop to draft speeches, to make chants, reach out to media, printing handouts. It was truly inspiring to see everyone become so mobilized all of a sudden and come together when we really needed to.

YH: Do you think that you might not have organized had the Ramirez allegations not arisen?

VC: Speaking personally, I was already upset about Kavanaugh, about Christine Blasey Ford, about the fact that Kavanaugh was a Yale man who went to Yale College and then Yale Law. I was upset about his politics all together and the fact that as a Supreme Court Justice he could threaten abortion law, environmental protection, immigration policies, and affordable healthcare. When Dr. Ford came out with her allegation, I was upset that he was an alleged perpetrator of sexual misconduct. But I think what rallied me was when it hit so close to home, when the allegation from Ramirez came out, which happened in Lawrence. That’s what really fired me up, personally. I know organizations like RALY, the Dems, and Yale Law School students have all been organizing around campus so I can’t say that if the Ramirez allegation hadn’t occurred we wouldn’t have the same response. But I think the closeness [of the Ramirez allegations] energized a lot of campus. I think for a lot of people on this campus who might have been apathetic or might have been trying not to think about it as much, the issue was really brought too close to home.

YH: Looking forward, how do you hope Solidarity with Survivors will balance supporting survivors with pursuing administrative change?

VC: So since everything happened so quickly, after the rally, we took the time to debrief and talk about our organizing strategies and what we could have done better so we talked about how we could best elevate marginalized voices in this community and survivors’ voices. So we’ve had lots of discussions about what we want our organization to look like next. But I think all of us do agree that we need to continue supporting survivors first and foremost. But I also think supporting survivors does mean demanding more action from the Yale administration and demanding that they listen to us and take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and deal with perpetrators of sexual misconduct who are on this campus whether or not they’ve been suspended and then come back. I think addressing all those issues is part of supporting survivors. Personally, I would like to see us take time to learn as much as we can about the Yale administration, Title IX, the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC) policies, the University Tribunal’s policies, and what the Yale administration has done in the past. I want to take time to ask questions of the Yale administration and ask questions of each other and then I think over time we will be able to make concrete policy demands of the Yale administration. I think that process will take a long time, but that’s how I personally see the future.

YH: Some people have said that the support of sexual assault survivors should be apolitical. Do you think it’s possible to extricate politics from this issue?

VC: I think everything is political. I think everything is deeply connected to our administrations, institutions and government and general culture, which are all political. I think with Solidarity with Survivors we try to bring survivors’ voices to the forefront and support survivors first and foremost. A lot of the time when there is a lot of talk about politics, survivors’ voices get drowned out. Or the idea of supporting survivors gets swept up by the political discourse. However, I do think that all of us organizers are very political. The things that Kavanaugh might do as Supreme Court Justice are going to affect the most marginalized people in the country. I personally don’t think there’s a way to be apolitical about this because so many of our institutions and so much of our culture perpetuates the type of rape culture and the type of culture that allows powerful men to abuse their power. And for Yale to produce powerful, abusive men, I think makes this all very political.

YH: Obviously the issue of sexual assault and the silencing of women is pervasive across the country. Why specifically target the Yale administration instead of looking more nationally?

VC: I think that this issue is pervasive literally everywhere: at Yale, outside of Yale, and in the most powerful parts of this country. Our president is an alleged perpetrator of sexual misconduct, so are now two of our Supreme Court Justices (who are both Yale men), so obviously this is widespread all across the country, all the way up to our highest court in the land. However, I think the reason that I personally have been focusing so much on Yale is because Yale has such an important part to play in the production of these men who abuse their power. Yale is complicit in allowing a culture of disrespect and misogyny to perpetuate and so continues to produce men who will perpetrate sexual misconduct. And then those men will become very powerful people and hold very powerful positions, so I think Yale plays a critical role in what’s happening right now. Not only that but focusing on Yale is powerful for organizers because it allows us to effect change — even if as students we may not be important in the large scheme of things.

YH: How can Yale students make changes in an arena where such powerful institutional forces are at play?

VC: Yale produces some of the world’s most powerful leaders and as students we have the power to make changes in its culture not only on the administrative level but also in our ability to put forth a next generation of leaders that will not tolerate sexual misconduct or disrespect of any kind. So not only can we affect Yale’s administration, we can also affect a culture of leaders and I think that’s the immense power students have at Yale. For example, I come from a background where I don’t have any connections, and my voice might not matter that much but because we’re students at Yale and we’re mobilizing, speaking out and gaining media attention, the spotlight is really on Yale. I think that’s our power as Yale students: when we come together and speak out and speak up, the nation listens. And that’s why we can’t shut up; we have to keep talking about this and we have to let the administration know that if they don’t make changes, we will call them out and the country is going to know about it.

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