This reflection by Women’s Center Director, Jess Myers, was written for and originally shared on the ACPA’s Standing Committee for Women blog. It has been republished on our site with their permission. For more on ACPA SCW, check out their website.
When the Women’s Center at UMBC at celebrated its 20th anniversary, the staff wanted to make a commemorative quilt. Each student organization and department the Women’s Center partnered with over the years made a square that was patched together into a quilt that was unique to the history of the Women’s Center. We indulged in this practice to honor America’s rich history of quilting and patchwork. For centuries, quilts have told stories and were uniquely linked to their creators, who most often were women. The process of quilting encouraged women to share their stories and build community with other women. This felt like an appropriate nod at history as we celebrated our own. With this experience, I’ve especially enjoyed this year’s Women’s History Month theme of Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.
As our country has evolved so has the medium for telling our narratives. We now rely on various social media platforms to share our stories as we Instagram brunch with friends, share the latest viral blog on Facebook, and tweet our experiences throughout the day. What was once threaded and woven is now tweeted, liked, and hashtagged. And, while there may not be a beautiful quilt at the end of the day, many student activists of today are nonetheless weaving together an important story that will impact the future of women’s history. This is the story of the campus sexual assault movement happening now on college campuses.
Over the past year, I have been a part of a study with three other student affairs professionals exploring the strategies employed by activists involved in the movement to address sexual violence prevention and response on college campuses. Through observing online forums and the 23 interviews of both current students and recent graduates, a powerful story of activism unfolded. Our findings are rich and extend well beyond our original research question, but as I contemplate this year’s Women’s History Month theme, I am compelled to share the ways in which the participants used social media as a tool to weave together their stories and experiences as a medium to demand change on campuses and within our nation that support survivors of sexual assault and condemn sexual violence within our institutions of higher education. Participants in our study described using social media in several intentional ways, two of which I’ll explore here: to connect with other activists and as a tool for reducing power dynamics present in other spaces.
Sharing Their Stories with Others: Social Media as a Connection to Other Activists
Activists described the power of social media in helping them connect to other survivors and activists which supported a shift in momentum related to addressing sexual violence. By connecting with other activists, their story was no longer one of isolation but one that weaved into a greater context of support and validation. Several participants highlighted the power of solidarity when sexual violence related hashtags trended on Twitter such as Wagatwe Wanjuki’s #survivorprivilege which provided a forum to express their experiences. Moreover, one participant, Lynn*, captured the importance of this solidarity between and among activists from a variety of places. She said,
“There’s just a wonderful solidarity of knowing that you’re not alone… And when you see, as painful as it is to find other people who have been through what you’ve been through, there is an incredible level of empowerment that comes from knowing that somebody else has that experience, and that you’re not crazy.”
Creating New Spaces to Share Their Story: Social Media as a Tool for Reducing Power Dynamics
Closely related to the connection and solidarity activists felt from shared spaces online, some activists also identified the importance of online spaces as environments where power dynamics were reduced allowing their story to be told and heard. Some LGBTQ activists used online space because they did not have to out themselves in face-to-face settings. Other activists identified the importance of using social media as a forum where a variety of perspectives might be shared and validated, especially those that are historically marginalized. Vee, a participant who identifies as a queer woman of color, explained Twitter as community in which “I can breathe a sigh of relief, where I can get the validation I need.” When sexual assault stories highlighted by mainstream media often tell only the narrative of young, cisgnedered white women, the need for this counterspace online becomes even more important in ensuring all voices and stories are woven into the movement. Peter, another participant in our study, highlights this point:
“And if we’re talking about at risk communities, marginalized communities, communities that have been historically marginalized are not welcomed into the same spaces and so to a lot of people the only thing that they have access to and the only way that they are able to participate is through social media because of that anonymity that’s allowed that isn’t allowed for if you put your name to it.”
There is a power in hearing women’s stories. While remembering and recounting tales of our ancestors’ sacrifices and dedication is important, there is also great power in the stories being woven now. The story for these survivors and activists is still a work in progress, but during this Women’s History Month, I celebrate their efforts. Unlike a quilt which must be fully completed for the story to be told, social media is allowing me learn from activists across the country in real-time about their experiences, needs, and challenges. Their stories are already being woven into my practice as a student affairs professional and I am all the better professional for it. This will be a story not only tweeted, blogged, and hashtagged, but one that will be woven into the fabric of our national history.
*Although many survivors in the current campus sexual assault movement are choosing to publicly use their names and identities in their activist work and/or with media outlets our study uses pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality for all of our participants.