Walking for awareness: Pittsburgh students support survivors

“However we dress, wherever we go,” shouted Carlow University sophomore Caitlin Hoag last weekend. “Consent isn’t optional; no means no,” a group of 100 responded as they marched down Forbes Ave on April 3. It was the launch to a series of events hosted by Pittsburgh universities for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The walk, Pittsburgh Universities Believe Survivors (PUBS), was a collaboration between Project SAFE at Carlow University and the Title IX offices at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.

Participants gathered in University Commons at Carlow University to pick up T-shirts and magnetic pronoun pins. Many students gathered to create posters while pop music by female artists played overhead. Art supplies were strewn across tables as students spelled out messages like, “‘No’ does not mean ‘convince me,’” “Love should not be deadly,” and “Clothes aren’t consent.”

Organizers hope that this year’s PUBS walk will become an annual event. “I talk about consent all the time,” said Hoag, who spearheaded plans for the walk. “It’s not annoying, though, because we need to talk about it. That’s how you find out when you’re a sophomore in college, ‘Hey, that thing that happened in high school was not normal and … nobody should feel that way.”

The walk was intended to create a space where survivors could feel safe, supported, and heard. Many speakers expressed the isolation they felt during and after abusive experiences. One Carlow affiliate, who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, and workplace harassment, told the crowd: “When you’re a survivor, it can definitely feel very lonely, feel like people don’t support you or don’t understand. I just want to let you all know that there are people out there who do support you and do understand. And the story is definitely way too common. When I went into social work … I can’t count how many people came out and told me their stories about just different things they have experienced.”

Hoag had a similar experience when she became a peer mentor at Project SAFE, an initiative to combat sexual and domestic violence. The program’s launch coincided with the advent of COVID-19, so it has only recently gained traction at Carlow. Once Hoag told her friends about her role at Project SAFE, she was shocked by how many friends had stories of harassment and assault. Yet she also felt grounded by the fact that Project SAFE had created a space for students to share. It was one of the many ways the initiative, introduced by Carlow’s Director of Gender-Based Violence Prevention Erin Tunney, has shifted conversations about consent on campus.

Prior to the pandemic, Carnegie Mellon also had a Project SAFE team. But when school went virtual for a year and a half, all the structural information graduated with its student leaders. “My freshman year it was really strong,” said Carnegie Mellon senior Mashia Mazumder, who is the president of CMU FEMME. “They had Take Back the Night, art galleries in April, and then post-COVID it died.” When Madzummer reached out with a request to collaborate on similar events last spring, she never received a response.

Project SAFE does not exist at the University of Pittsburgh, but the school is home to a student-led group that is making similar efforts. Underdog, a start-up idea that launched last year, is being led by first-year Katie Gallo, junior Esme Stasa, and sophomore Wythe Chen. They are creating a platform with online modules to teach women the warning signs of sexual and domestic violence. Gallo said it is designed to be engaging and tailored to women, who are nine times more likely to experience rape than men. In February, Underdog received first place in Big Idea Blitz, a start-up competition for Carnegie Mellon and Pitt students and the Randall Family Competition, hosted by the Pitt Innovation Institute. Underdog is partnering with women’s centers “to meet that gap between young adulthood … and then not having to need those services when you are in your 30s or 40s … Ideally we are trying to teach college women what a healthy relationship looks like,” Stasa explained in an interview.

Stasa, who is studying finance and accounting, made an impromptu speech at the end of the PUBS walk. She said that as a child, she thought the domestic violence she experienced was normal. Then one day during her first year in high school, her guidance counselor asked if Stasa’s sartorial choices were a reflection of her family’s financial struggles. “I remember thinking: I wish I was poor. I wish that was my problem.” Instead, Stasa showed her counselor the bruises her clothing had covered.

After telling her counselor, she never returned to her childhood house. She was taken to a women’s shelter with her younger sisters, who were in seventh and second grade. “I can wholeheartedly say that I would not be here today had it not been for the guidance counselor that reached out,” Stasa said, emphasizing the importance of being seen and supported. “You do repeat the cycle. I married at 21 and became financially abused … I was a homemaker for 10 years, and I’m taking my life back,” she said emphatically, encouraged by a whoop and a ripple of cheers from the audience. At the end of her speech, Stasa promoted Underdog’s work to help college women break the cycle.

The student-led initiative is an alternative to university supports, which are not always known by or accessible to students. Mazumder feels that, while the Title IX office at Carnegie Mellon is doing good work, it is unknown by most students. Part of this is because “it’s not physically on campus, so it feels kind of detached,” she explained in an interview. “You only see it if you’re seeking it out, but [Title IX resources] should be something people know about ahead of time.”

Title IX offices are a relatively new feature of U.S. higher education. The one at Carnegie Mellon began in 2015, led by alum and Associate Director for Education and Outreach Jamie Edwards-Pasek. In an interview at PUBS, she acknowledged the limitations of the office. Of the more than 200 reports received in a typical year, only five to 10 cases go to a hearing. One reason for this low outcome is that some reports are beyond the university’s jurisdiction, like cases that occur off-campus and do not involve a Carnegie Mellon student. But she also suspected that “people are afraid of being re-traumatized through the process. I think they kind of do a cost-benefit analysis … it’s a lot of costs; you’re sharing your personal life, you may be missing class or other types of extracurriculars to be meeting with my office or … [others] for the hearing; it’s very stressful, it’s very emotional.”

Though many students do not want the university to formally respond to the report — in fact, “the vast majority of people who have ever been reported don’t even know that they have been reported,” Edwards-Pasek explained — the Title IX office does have a helpful strategy in its back pocket: informal resolution. The office issues no-contact agreements and invites reported students to the office for prevention education. A Title IX representative will sit down with the student, discuss their behaviors, and send them off with learning resources. Edwards-Pasek’s favorites are In The Know, a RadioLab podcast, and a “really interesting legal-philosophical meditation on what consent is” by Oxford Press.