“Every Day Is Hard”: Survivors and Their Allies Speak Out at Columbia
Wesley Morris joined the Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University after seven years of working for social justice in Greenville, NC. He had hoped to take some time off from activism once he got to New York. But three weeks after his arrival, he heard about a student who was hauling a dorm room mattress around campus everywhere she went. The student had been strangled and raped on one just like it during her sophomore year. She would carry the mattress to meetings, classes, and even the cafeteria until Columbia either expelled her rapist or he left of his own volition.
The student’s story signaled the end of Mr. Morris’ brief hiatus from activism. He was one of over three hundred students who gathered at the foot of the main administrative building last Friday afternoon to rally in support of survivors of sexual assault and demand more comprehensive rape prevention programs at Columbia. But the event was about more than policy: it was about dismantling a culture that shames and stigmatizes survivors and replacing it with one that offers support, protection and healing.
‘Our faith not only compels us to be here today, but our shared humanity,’ Mr. Morris said. ‘We are able to stand here because of the courage of someone else.’
That someone else is Emma Sulkowicz, the art major whose politically charged senior thesis ‘Mattress Piece: Carry That Weight’ has become a catalyst for a movement that is gaining traction on campuses across the nation.
‘A survivor’s greatest asset is their support. Every voice counts,’ Ms. Sulkowicz reminded the crowd before inviting anyone who felt like it to stand up and share their own stories of survival.
And share they did. 24-year-old Rose was in her fifteenth semester at Columbia, determined – despite the memories of her trauma and the indifference of administrators – to complete her bachelor’s degree: ‘I have the nerve to suffer from PTSD, the nerve to ask for support – and the nerve to return year after year.’ Dana, a senior, was raped in May 2013: ‘I wish I knew a lot of you last year when it was really hard to be here. You’re all amazing,’ she said. Another survivor, who chose not to reveal her name, put her experience in the plainest possible terms: ‘Every day is hard. Every fucking day.’
Some students openly charged university president Lee Bollinger with putting Columbia’s reputation before the mental, emotional and physical well-being of students and attempting to downplay the prevalence of sexual assault. They held up signs with slogans that read “Red Tape Won’t Cover Up Rape”, “Silence = Violence” and “Columbia Has a Serial Rape Problem.” Others taped their mouths shut with red tape, symbolizing their frustration with what organizers called ‘inaction’ on the part of the university.
But the criticism was nothing if not constructive. Erik Campano, a member of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence and head of Stanford Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault, called the rally ‘a pivotal day in the history of Columbia.’‘Columbia’s mission – to advance knowledge and learning – cannot be carried out in full, if there is an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, body-image and eating disorders … as well as a general sense of fear among a good portion of the student body, as a result of violence,’ Mr. Campanos said. ‘The greatest weapon against this fear is for all of us to be sensitive to the feelings of others, not to push them into sexuality, not to close our ears when they talk of such violence, but to query immediately, “what are you feeling? How can I help you? How are we going to walk together through this experience – all the way to the end – so that you can do your research or teach your class or finish your degree with all the innate capability you have?”’
Mr. Campano’s call for compassion resonated with first-year student Courtney Paulson. Ms. Paulson was heartened that the protest had drawn support from as far as the School of Social Work and the Union Theological Seminary. She hoped that the immense show of support at the rally would reassure survivors that they are not alone on Columbia’s campus. ‘There’s huge power in hearing other people’s stories,’ she said. ‘Maybe seeds will be planted today.’