When I transitioned to working professionally with colleges and universities on improving their responses to campus sexual violence, I was nervous. I did not want to the perpetuate frequently-aired criticisms of the movement: an over-emphasis on moral outrage only about violence against privileged bodies and identities; an over-reliance on binary thinking about who commits sexual violence and who experiences it; and, an uncontested examination of the role of criminal justice system in preventing and responding to violence. Yet, over my two years working on Culture of Respect, NASPA’s initiative to help colleges and universities address sexual violence, I have found the work rewarding precisely because of the many opportunities there are to define and redefine what the campus sexual violence movement can accomplish. One of those rewarding moments, was attending SUNY Spectrum conference last month in Albany, NY.
The conference, hosted by the State University of New York (SUNY) system, focused on preventing and responding to violence against LGBTQIA+ students. With four days of programming and over 600 attendees from across the country, it was an ambitious, challenging, and illuminating professional development experience. Perhaps what drove the success of the conference was this shared perspective of attendees and presenters: we need to do more for LGBTQIA+ students on our campuses. Over four busy days, we spoke about actionable ways to help our institutions get there including, creating more inclusive prevention programming; facilitating more nuanced conversations about gender and sexuality; and allowing queer student and staff voices to lead the way.
A highlight for me was the closing panel on the first day of the conference, featuring four SUNY presidents who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, speaking about the challenges and opportunities they face in their jobs leading SUNY institutions (see picture below). They spoke about their own experiences being queer on campus and in the workplace, and what they have done to support their institution’s efforts to address sexual violence, focusing on the needs of LGBTQIA+ students. For me, their conversation cemented a sobering sentiment: though we have come so far, there is still much more to do to create communities that welcome, affirm, and celebrate LGBTQIA+ people.
Spectrum Presidential Panel: (left to right) Libby Post, Panel Moderator; Kristin G. Esterberg, President of SUNY Potsdam; Dustin Swanger, President of Fulton Montgomery Community College; Marion Terenzio, President of SUNY Cobleskill; and Michael R. Laliberte, President of SUNY Delhi. Photo credit: Joe Putrock, [email protected]
Culture of Respect was lucky enough to host a pre-conference workshop and two breakout sessions. We were enthusiastic about the opportunity to use our framework for organizational change to focus on what campuses can and should do to think about LGBTQIA+ students in their policies, programs, and communications. The sessions were full of engaged, passionate professionals (see picture below) who work in many capacities on and off campus such as: victim advocacy; Title IX; university leadership; campus safety; academic affairs; prevention; and health services. The most exciting moments in those sessions were the thoughtful, productive disagreements. These were not about the importance of responding to violence against sexual minorities, but the best way to get there. We discussed questions like: How can we write policy definitions that don’t communicate assumptions about survivors and perpetrators? How can we invite queer students, faculty, and staff to the leadership table without tokenizing them? How can we effectively communicate the urgency of high rates of violence against LGBTQIA+ students without sensationalizing?
While we did not walk away with answers to all these tough questions, we did leave the conference with many gifts: a renewed enthusiasm for our work to end violence on campus and tangible strategies for creating inclusive environments, combatting homophobia and transphobia, offering compassionate support, and implementing effective awareness-raising programs.
Culture of Respect Breakout Session: Sarice Greenstein (left) and Allison Tombros Korman (right) presenting to SUNY Spectrum attendees during their breakout session: What are you trying to say about me? Addressing Assumptions and Exclusion in Sexual Violence Programming and Policy
Photo credit: Joe Putrock, [email protected]