By Anahvia Mewborn
My name is Chelsea Carrick and I was born and raised in Casper, Wyoming, a town nestled amongst prairie and mountain. I ventured 2200 miles across the country to major in Film Studies at Barnard College in New York City. I’m now a recent graduate so some would call me an adult. Most people that know me wouldn’t. My post collegiate life has very little direction at this point so I’m going to travel and figure out what I want to do. I did cross-country and track in college, which means I spent a hefty percentage of my free time running. I also enjoy making up names for a band I’ll never have, finding the best burritos in the city, planning hypothetical webisodes for a hypothetical webseries, strumming the mandolin once in a while, and I tried knitting for about four minutes. So now I consider myself a knitter.
AM: What anti-sexual assault organization(s) are you involved in on campus? What are the goals/aims of each? What’s your part?
CC: I’m part of No Red Tape, which is an on campus group fighting sexual violence and rape culture at Columbia, through direct action and direct support for survivors. Our goals are to reform the administrative policies surrounding sexual assault and make sure that they’re enforced. But more than that we want to change the culture surrounding sexual assault. We hope to help create a community that encourages enthusiastic consent, removes the stigma attached to survivors/victims, and allows student voices to be heard in the shaping of a safer and more productive campus for everyone.
If I’m doing my job right my part in the group is to be supporter, friend, activist, and ally all at once. That’s everyone’s part. Sometimes I send emails. Sometimes I print and post fliers. And all of that is really important. But I think my most vital role, everyone’s most vital role, is to provide emotional support. This kind of work can be exhausting and the movement won’t be sustainable if we can’t support each other.
AM: How are you inclusive of identities outside of the typical sexual assault narrative? Do you think more work needs to be done to be more inclusive?
CC: I absolutely think work needs to be done to make the campus anti-sexual assault movement more inclusive. Look at the media: The majority of people that are in the spotlight are white, cis-women. And it’s not that they shouldn’t be present, because the women I’ve seen in the news are brilliant and courageous beyond words. But more people should be there too; people who don’t necessarily fit the dominant narrative of male attacker against a white woman. The dominant discourse on the sexual assault movement is still highly rooted in a normative narrative, and that’s really problematic.
In the Columbia Title IX complaint here at Columbia there are female survivors. There are male survivors. There are gender queer survivors. Many people in that complaint, especially in situations that don’t fit a traditional sexual assault narrative, were delegitimized because of their identities, and this kind of discrimination and marginalization is unacceptable. Our movement needs to make sure not to do that too.
AM: How/why did you get involved on campus in anti-sexual assault activism?
CC: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why I got involved in anti-sexual assault activism. I’ve always been pretty vocal about my ideas. As a toddler my parents took me to Sea World and I repeatedly shouted at the other guests to “Free Yaca and Vicca.” Yaca and Vicca were the whales performing during the whale show, and based on my Free Willy knowledge I thought they should be liberated.
Then I came of age and ventured to New York where I found a group of people that was as vocal about social justice issues as I was about the orcas of my past. The first time I really got involved with anti-sexual assault activism was through the Barnard Columbia Socialists, which is an on-campus group with a long history of members involved in past campus reform projects. From there I met with people from the TitleIX Team on our campus, and then a group of students formed the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, and from that NoRedTape was born. And I met the grooviest and most dedicated group of activists a vocal, whale-loving girl from Wyoming could ask for.
My involvement with anti-sexual assault activism escalated not only because I’m passionate about it, but also because I was surrounded by some of the most dedicated and energetic activists I’ve ever met. We built off each other’s ideas and enthusiasm to build a powerful team and a supportive community.
AM: How have people back home responded to your college activism? Has there been any tension? Were you outspoken/passionate about issues in high school?
CC: As far as I know, most people back home have responded pretty well to this specific strain of activism. On a general level, it’s really hard for people to be against anti-sexual assault activism. Nobody says they’re for sexual assault–But it becomes tricky, because even people who say they support an anti-sexual violence movement perpetuate rape culture in certain ways. For example, people I know who say they support the movement still engage in “slut shaming” type behavior; they don’t seem to understand how their actions are implicated in perpetuating rape culture. If I point that out people get defensive. They think that if they’re not a rapist then they aren’t part of that culture and the movement doesn’t concern them. So even though people have responded positively, it’s difficult to convey that it needs to be actively opposed, not just verbally supported.
AM: Do you have an achievement in the context of your activism that you’re especially proud of?
CC: I think we’ve accomplished a lot this year. And for that I’m really proud. We’ve engaged the administration in a dialogue (although exactly how that dialogue has played out has often been frustrating) and we’ve brought national attention to our campus. We’ve drafted concrete reforms on Consent Education and made the Rape Crisis Center more accessible.
I was part of coordinating a prospective student action in which we wrote admitted students a letter addressing the concerns we have with sexual assault on our campus, and on campuses across the country. In the latter we included a list of questions potential students and parents should ask administrators when they go on campus visits. This letter gained quite a bit of national attention, but the most rewarding part about it was having high school seniors come up to me at the activities fairs where we were distributing the letters and tell me they’ve been following our work and want to get involved if they end up at Columbia. It’s incredible to see proof that this movement is only going to get stronger with time. It’s great to see people talking about these issues before they’re even on campus.
I also think the red tape action during the graduation ceremonies was a really cool thing to be a part of. Before graduation I bought every remaining role of red tape from the hardware store in order to distribute it to students to wear on their caps for graduation. It seems strange to be proud of swiping a credit card, but I was moved by this symbolic hope: If we could clear the red tape out of the hardware store, then maybe we can clear the red tape out of the university too. It was a perhaps too idealistic sentiment but then when I saw how vibrant the red tape was on the blue caps during commencement I was stoked. I was reinvigorated to keep fighting as an alumni.
AM: Are students stigmatized for speaking up, especially survivors?
CC: People are stigmatized for speaking out against sexual violence nearly everywhere. In some ways, being at Columbia allows us to speak out more because we have access to the media due to our location. But many people tend to believe that t rape and sexual assault don’t happen within the gates of Columbia because it’s too “elite.” Because Columbia students don’t necessarily fit what people consider a stereotypical rapist (violent strangers jumping out of bushes), people have a hard time acknowledging that it happens within out own community, and the reputation of rapists end up being taken into consideration more than the well being of survivors. So if people, especially survivors, speak out against sexual assault they’re often criticized more than the actual perpetrator for “damaging his future prospects”.
When survivors go public with their story, if they’re not explicitly blamed for the assault itself, they’re often blamed for the way they handled it. A typical response is to tell survivors that they shouldn’t have gone to the university, that instead they should have gone to the police. This tells me that people don’t understand rape culture at all. The police perpetuate this cycle of violence and often put the survivor through an additional layer of trauma. So even if a survivor isn’t directly stigmatized for speaking out, (i.e. harassed online, asked a series of absurd questions related to attire/drinking habits/etc.) they’re still often called in to question in some way.
AM: What would dismantling rape culture look like on the institutional level at Columbia (i.e. what improvements need to be made)?
CC: There’s a lot to be done to dismantle rape culture on the institutional level at Columbia. The adjudication process typically favors the perpetrator, does not give adequate support to survivors, and navigating available resources is difficult and often unclear. Survivors should be guided and supported through the process by impartial activists, made aware of their options, given access to knowledge of what the adjudication process looks like should they choose to go through with it, and given adequate psychological services as well as academic accommodations if the need arises. Justice should be survivor centered – meaning that rapists should not be allowed back on campus after a semester, especially without notifying the survivor or considering their needs. But it also means that expulsion should not be the cornerstone of fighting rape culture: reformative justice and preventative education should be a priority so that we’re not simply sending rapists to other schools to assault other people.
Columbia should make reforms in order to be Title IX compliant: It needs to address the aforementioned issues, it needs to send out timely warning for attacks that occur on campus by its own students (not just off-campus by men of color like they do now), and we need to include a trigger warning before teaching or requiring academic materials that depict rape or sexual assault. But we need to be more than Title IX compliant. We have to exceed those expectations because we can’t rely on the federal government (a flawed institution in and of itself, one that is dominated primarily by white, straight, cis-men) to craft perfect guidelines surrounding the experiences of a variety of individuals. It needs to be an ongoing conversation where the administration is consistently open to change and reformation to create the safest and most conducive learning environment for all students.
In order to truly dismantle Rape Culture Columbia needs to stop investing in the Prison Industrial complex and it needs to stop expanding into Manhattanville. Both of these necessitate the violent and non-consensual removal and/or displacement of human bodies for Columbia’s monetary benefit. The school cannot claim to be against Rape Culture while feeding it. It can make all the reforms to its sexual assault policy it wants, but until Columbia recognizes the implications of its actions and investments on a broader level, we will be perpetuating and directly contributing to rape culture.
AM: What about on a social level (among students)?
CC: There’s a lot to be done on the social level at Columbia too. Reforming administrative policies is important, and reforms such as improved consent education and a more transparent adjudication process need to be written into the University Policy. But there also needs to be a sense of community accountability and mutual respect. This is where an extensive bystander education program needs to be implemented. This training shouldn’t just include, as it often does, an “if you see a friend in a bad situation help them get out of it” approach (although it definitely should include that). It also needs to cover what to do if your friend makes a rape joke. It needs to train people how to recognize and dismantle the harmful rape culture that permeates a number of groups on campus. Students should learn never to blame the survivor/victim. They should learn how to ask for consent, always.
AM: What do you do for self-care (i.e. to alleviate activist burn out)?
CC: I can’t emphasize how crucial self-care is in preventing burnout. Sometimes when I’m feeling overwhelmed I go for a run, or I watch “Parks and Rec” because it feels like Leslie Knope will forever and always be on my side, or sometimes I spend more money on coffee than I should. If I’m emotionally exhausted I can somehow legitimize spending four dollars on an iced coffee. I don’t know if that’s a healthy habit but for now it’s sticking.
I can’t talk enough about the importance of taking care of each other. We all get tired and we all get burnt out. Sometimes the most important thing you can do as an activist is to provide a momentary distraction, or to provide comfort. One of the best stress fighters for me was when we all provided a collective distraction just by spending time together in an informal setting.
AM: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan on incorporating anti-sexual assault activism in your life long-term?
CC: I barely know what I’m doing in the next ten minutes let alone what I’m doing with my future. I do know I want to stay involved in anti-sexual assault activism. Even though (as of about a week ago) I’m not technically a member of the campus community I still feel the need to stay connected to the movement. I refuse to be taken off the organizing listserv. Although I can’t be as directly involved with the activism on-campus since I won’t be in the same city, there’s this really cool thing called the internet that will, if I’m using it right, allow me to stay connected and involved.
I don’t just have a lot of energy invested in the trajectory of the movement; I also formed really strong emotional bonds with the people I’ve met and worked with throughout my time involved with anti-sexual assault activism. I have a lot of love for a lot of people still on campus and I want them to be safe, and I want the administration to hear them when they say they don’t feel safe and that that’s far less than satisfactory. I don’t think I can just stop being involved because I won’t be physically present.
It’s also not like sexual assault is a problem unique to universities. I don’t know exactly in what capacity yet, but I certainly hope to continue my involvement in activism around this issue in an off-campus context.