This interview is part of our Activist Profile series, which documents the work of student activists and/or organizers in their own words. Email us at knowyourIX [AT] gmail [DOT] com (subject heading: “ACTIVIST PROFILE”) to suggest the fab student we should profile next.
By Angela Lee
It’s an understatement to say we’re big fans of Zoe Ridolfi-Starr and her work. Zoe’s a rising senior at Columbia University, a co-founder of No Red Tape Columbia, and a lead complainant in the Title IX complaint against her university. She’s the fiercest of advocates and an endlessly energetic organizer.
Update: Zoe is now a member of our team!
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Angela Lee: How did you get involved in survivor advocacy?
Zoe Ridolfi-Starr: It comes from a very personal place for me. I was assaulted the summer after my freshman year of college. It took me a while to identify what had happened to me; it never really clicked for me. I didn’t put on a label on it until more than a year later when I was talking with a friend who had just been assaulted. The first words that came out of my mouth were, “I understand what you’re going through.” It was the first time I had acknowledged what had happened. I was reading all these powerful stories of survivors on other campuses who had been through similar things and were sharing their experiences publicly. Their experiences with sexual violence and then the betrayal of their institution — the community that was their home — were really meaningful to me. I was moved by these people who were stepping up and speaking up about what they had been through and doing to make a change. In late 2013, another good friend of mine published an investigative account of sexual assault on Columbia’s campus. That was the moment when I realized, “Wow, what I’m experiencing and what I’m going through isn’t this individualized case. It’s not about me: It’s part of a bigger systematic failure of our school, of our community, of our age group, of everyone, to adequately address these issues. It’s about our entire community.” There had been so many people who had been through what I had been to and so many more people who would endure it if we didn’t do anything about it. So I got back to campus and started organizing.
I’m lucky because I have had a lot of support. Many survivors can’t really work from their own experiences. That’s not how they process or they can’t be public about it, but for me it’s very empowering. Through meeting with survivors, people who have shared experiences and perspectives and are deeply committed to each other, I’ve had … relief is the first word that comes to mind. It’s empowering and nourishing to have people who understand what you’re going through and who you can rely on when things get difficult.
A: What projects have you worked on?
I’m thinking about how to create a system that instead of incentivizing leaving things under the rug, invests in the safety of students. –Zoe Ridolfi-Starr
Z: I’ve been involved in a lot of organizing at Columbia, through many different groups. We filed a Title IX complaint and I’m a lead complainant. I reached out to people about that, wrote the complaint, wrote everyone’s stories, and compiled the evidence. I continue to interface with the Office of Civil Rights. That’s a big part of what we’ve been doing this semester. Through organizing the complaint, I realized that we survivors needed a place to talk so I helped to lead a peer support group.
I’ve also been doing a lot of direct action work through No Red Tape, which tries to push the University to improve its policies. We create pressure by putting up fliers, letters, and big red X’s in red tape. We write letters to the president and various other administrators. At the activities fair for new students, we passed out letters to new students so that they are aware of the issue of sexual assault both at Columbia and at other colleges. We handed out pamphlets with sample questions that they can ask university representatives so that they can learn how the University approaches the issue of sexual violence. We encourage them to be a part of the solution.
Because there are tour groups that go around campus all the time, for a month we went to every single tour group and handed out the same letter with red tape over our mouths. We’ve done a lot of flyering and events with community groups. We co-sponsored an event on Title IX and its implications. We’ve been working with the Coalition of Students Against Sexual Violence. They do less organizing and more meeting with administrators. They’re the ones who work with administrators whereas No Red Tape pushes them, but there’s a lot of overlap. Through the Coalition, I led the effort to get emergency contraception provided for free on campus, which was successful.
Another thing we’ve started is the Survivor Support Network. We started doing all this activism and people started reaching out individually being like, “I need help and I don’t know who to go to. Can you help?” That was pretty overwhelming. Some would come to us saying, “My rapist was a friend and is supposed to DJ a student concert. How do I deal with this?” We would try to help them navigate what was going on. They would say, “I just opened this case and I don’t know what the process is like: Can you tell me what it’s going to be like?” We’ve been working with people individually to file police reports, get protection in family court, etc. I’ve been doing that by myself for some time, but this summer we’re trying to train law students to provide more structured support. They’ll have legal or counseling knowledge. The fact is that when administrators know that students know their rights, they will adhere to them. We’re putting information online, so people can access it without even meeting with us.
Last semester was a lot about policy reform and using media to pressure the university into making policy changes. Now it’s becoming clear that that’s going to be insufficient. This is more than a policy problem: This is cultural problem. We’re trying to provide more direct services and prevention programs. We’re trying to partner with bartending staff at local bars to train them in bystander intervention. We’re hoping to launch that this fall. We’re also hoping to start running our own consent education program with various community groups. As long as the school fails to do what they’re supposed to be doing, we cannot wait. We are going to do this ourselves.
A: How did you build a network of advocates?
People are willing to go to bat for each other. We’re not just here to fight against a common enemy but also to nourish ourselves. –Zoe Ridolfi-Starr
Z: We tried to keep our group open and flexible so people could come in and out. With an issue like this, part of trying to build a network means doing intentional outreach and creating an accessible activist space. Because this issue can be very painful for people, you need to be careful about what kind of language you use, how you deal with differing opinions, how you talk about each other, and how to ask for help. No Red Tape has a really special space.
When we were doing interviews right after we filed a complaint, one of the survivors had a really overwhelming day, and he reached out to the group saying that he was in a bad place. Within minutes, six people were available, and we sat outside talking and supporting each other. We weren’t only there to fight the external fight but also there to be a part of that internal struggle. People are willing to go to bat for each other. We’re not just here to fight against a common enemy but also to nourish ourselves.
A: Any advice for activists on other campuses?
Z: So a lot of this work depends on the texture and rhythms of the individual school. It’s kind of hard to talk specifics but I think in any case, media is your best friend and exhausting and tricky to control. Media and money are the language of any university so if you want to apply pressure, you need to use one or the other, and usually media is a better bet for students. Actions with a great visual are good and anything that sounds dramatic is good. It’s hard because a lot of times you’re sharing your personal stories, but I would say that it’s important to prepare talking points and be sure that everyone stays on the same message.
Policy work cannot happen in a vacuum so there has to be a cultural shift. We have to be talking about prevention. Fifteen years ago, this same kind of organizing work was happening at Columbia but we’re still dealing with the same stuff today. Part of what I’ve been doing is thinking about how to make this a more long-term shift and provide mechanisms for meaningful oversight, accountability, and student input. I’m thinking about how to create a system that instead of incentivizing leaving things under the rug, invests in the safety of students. As of now, no one has the answer to that which makes it tough.