Holding battery powered candles, participants in the Candlelight Vigil last Friday walked in solidarity for survivors of sexual assault. Participants began on the Gizmo, walking past the quads and CFA before making their way back to the Taylor Lounge. While the walk was mostly silent, a few sang while other engaged in quiet conversation.
The vigil was organized by seniors Jenn Erl and Ananda Badili in wake of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh despite allegations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford. The vigil was in honor of Ford as well as Anita Hill, who accused Justice Clarence Thomas of harassment at his court confirmation in 1991.
For Badili and Erl, the event’s purpose changed over the course of its organization. What first started out as a political and informational event turned into one that prioritized healing and support. Badili noted that it might be difficult to organize an event that is both political and healing, and Erl noted that some of the information may create a space that is unsafe for survivors.
“If we did have more of an informative and political climate at the event it might make people uncomfortable, in particular survivors of sexual assault and other traumas,” Erl said. “And that was absolutely the opposite of what we wanted to happen.”
Both agreed on a set of activities that would appeal to a range of interests and would also avoid harming those who sought a supportive and safe space. Badili noted that, while looking at the bigger picture of national issues is important, she was more interested in creating an impact on the Knox campus. Although the event drew around 40 students, Badili recognizes that there are still more on campus who are seeking support.
“There were a lot of people who told us they didn’t want to come because they thought they might hear something that would trigger them,” she said.
She feels that attending the event is not as important, for survivors especially, as knowing the event took place. She said that it’s important for students to know that there is a group of students who took part in this event to display their support.
“We believe them,” she said. “That was the main take home that I wanted people to have from the event. We believe you, you don’t have to tell me the details. You don’t have to cry, I don’t have to cry. It doesn’t have to be personal, but I believe you.”
Professor of Environmental Studies Ben Farrer, who attended the vigil, feels that many of the people who participated seemed to leave the event feeling better than they had prior to it. He feels like events like this diminish some of the isolation survivors feel, whether or not they participated.
“I think it sends a message that Knox College should be a comfortable place for survivors and an uncomfortable place for assaulters,” he said. “It’s like a public statement about who this place belongs to.”
As a faculty member, Farrer saw the vigil as an opportunity to send a message of support for his students in a way that was feasible for him personally. As other professors might be able to send such messages during classes, his subject field does not always allow for those types of discussions.
“I teach Environmental Studies, and so consent and the politics of sexual assault —
sometimes they come up tangentially, but not really,” he said. “So it never felt to me like there were ways in the classroom that I could always make students feel included and supported.”
Farrer always strives to make sure his students feel supported in and out of the classroom, but is aware of the limits his role as a faculty member place on him. As a mandatory reporter, he is cautious about entering a space in which students might want to share their stories.
“I understand that sometimes students feel awkward about asking … I’d never want to make anyone feel uncomfortable with my presence [as a faculty member],” he said.
Farrer understands the need for the mandatory reporter policy, but recognizes that any policy will have its downfalls. He wants to avoid being in the position of needing to report an incident against a survivor’s wishes.
“Obviously that’s not a position that I think anyone should ever feel comfortable with,” he said. “The process should be led by survivors.”
Badili feels strongly about the invalidation and isolation many women feel in the wake of events like the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh despite allegations of sexual assault. She feels as though women continue to be defeated, especially in politics.
“I feel like, in our current political climate, invalidated very often,” she said. “And I can’t really remember the last time something went in a way that would make me as a woman in this country feel safe and protected by my government.”
Both she and Erl believe the continuing invalidation of women is due in large part to the inability of people to put into practice the values they claim to have.
“A lot of people have an idea of what their cultural values are, how they think they treat people,” Erl said. “And in practice that changes a lot. Someone could call themselves progressive or a feminist or really truly think that they are for equalityÉ but then in practice be kind of [inactive] in regards to that or actively mistreating people.”
Badili also thinks this points to a problem of not only misunderstanding consent, but also having unclear ideas on how to deal with the consequences of assault and domestic violence.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories where somebody made a mistake and hurt somebody else, but if I accidentally shoot somebody, you’d see a lot less people debating what should be the consequences for that,” she said.
Farrer feels that his role is important in not only supporting survivors but providing a voice for those who have been silenced.
“As a younger, white, cis-male faculty member, I’ll probably never be in a better position to combat rape culture than I am right now,” he said. “College campuses are where the epidemics of this stuff is happening and where it starts for people.”
While Badili is satisfied with the amount of participants in the vigil, she would have felt successful even if only a few had shown up. For her, the event became successful once it was planned, since it presents students with an idea of the campus climate she and others are attempting to provide.