Have you ever been to Wesleyan’s annual Take Back the Night Event? If you haven’t, you absolutely should. The event is organized by the group Students for Consent and Communication (SFCC), and this year’s event will be held on Thursday, April 24 at 7 pm on Foss Hill. I recently caught up with the Co-Presidents of SFCC, Caillin Puente ’15 and Nina Gurak ’16, to learn more about Take Back the Night. If you think that you have more important things to do at 7 pm on Thursday, hopefully this post will change your mind.
The co-presidents informed me that Take Back the Night (TBTN) is a global movement, as annual demonstrations are held in thirty countries worldwide. In fact, the event is organized by the Take Back the Night charitable foundation that was established in 1999. Puente described the organization’s mission in broad terms: “Take Back the Night is a global movement to end sexual violence. Also, it aims to stop the silence and eliminate the shame surrounding crimes of sexual assault and sexual violence. It’s been around since the 1970s.” In fact, the first Take Back the Night event was held in Philadelphia in 1975 after a female scientist was murdered while walking home alone. Puente stated that the event now occurs annually on college campuses, cities, and in other settings. “It’s about shedding some light on the subject and bringing communities together.”
Both organizers got involved in the event planning process early in their time at Wesleyan. Puente joined SFCC in her freshman year, and became the president of the organization when she was a sophomore.”I’ve been doing TBTN for three years, but the former SART intern, Maggie Cohen ’12, introduced me to the issue on campus when I was a freshman. I was interested in working on the issue, but I didn’t know how it affected college campuses differently than in the ‘real world.'”
Gurak also started working on issues of sexual violence early in her Wesleyan career. “For me, I knew when I got to Wesleyan that this was something that I wanted to get involved in, and it was something that really factored in my decision to come to Wesleyan. I was like, ‘Tell me more!'” Gurak then joined SFCC in her freshman year, and this will be her second time co-chairing the event.
Puente and Gurak elaborated that SFCC is a survivor-centered organization. That is, their mission is to create programming with the needs of survivors in mind. This philosophy extends to Take Back the Night. As Puente said, “We want to make sure the event is a safe space. We’re very open to the event evolving. We’ve been paying attention for how it’s been going for the past few years, and how we can improve it to make sure it reaches as many communities as possible.” The organizers want everyone on campus to feel that they are welcome to participate in conversations about sexual violence, and they work to make their meetings and events as accessible as possible.
The co-presidents also characterized SFCC as a flexible organization that is sensitive to the input of the student body. As Gurak mentioned, “There’s more of a space for innovation in our process, and for a lot more student involvement.” Puente agreed. “There’s space for students to get involved and organize themselves, and rally around supporting survivors in their own way. We can take the club in a lot of different directions, and we have been growing it and evolving it.”
The most important task that SFCC members take on is planning Take Back the Night. Gurak commented that TBTN events are different in every community, but with important unifying features. “It has to be what works for the campus, and we’re still in the process of figuring that out. At Wesleyan, for us and for the event as a whole it’s about supporting survivors and being able to speak openly and freely. We want to be able to share stories and band together as a community in solidarity with survivors.”
This year, SFCC collaborated with other groups on campus such as the Women of Color Collective and Rho Epsilon Pi to get ideas on how to restructure the event. They felt that working with these organizations was extremely helpful. As Gurak described, “We wanted to get more information, and it was great to have an open community meeting. We wanted to field suggestions from the general community and we pulled people from the WoC Collective and Rho Ep to really inform our decision making.” Puente added, “We wanted to get a better cross-section of the Wesleyan community.”
Suggestions from both groups were incorporated into this year’s event. Thanks to the efforts of Crystal Franklin ’16 from the WoC collective, the lineup of performers was expanded. Gurak also mentioned that the sisters of Rho Ep suggested a white board project that SFCC incorporated into their tabling efforts.
In fact, due to these discussions, the format of Take Back the Night will be different this year from past events. In previous years, gatherers would start on the Olin steps, listen to speeches and a capella performances, and then march around campus. Attendees would finish their demonstration on the CFA lawn and gather in a circle to hear survivors’ stories. Then, the event would culminate on a second speak out circle on Foss Hill complete with a candlelit vigil.
One of the changes is the location of the event, as this year’s TBTN will start on Foss Hill. Also, Puente commented that they have changed to the format of some events. “In the spirit of making it more inclusive, and allowing for multiple avenues of expression, we’ve expanded the traditional speak out circle. We’re including the submission of anonymous stories for anyone who wants to share but doesn’t feel comfortable in the venue of a large crowd.” SFCC is still accepting stories for the event, and anyone who wants to have their experience read aloud (anonymously) can submit it here.
The coordinators added that stories in any medium are welcome. Puente said, “We have singers, rappers, poets, and speakers performing this year. People have diverse experiences with sexual violence, and we want to make sure this event isn’t excluding anyone.” Gurak emphasized that the speak out circle is an important part of the event.”A lot of schools are moving away form the speak out circles and having people share their experiences in the moment, which I think is unfortunate since it’s very empowering in the moment.”
It is clear that Wesleyan’s Take Back the Night event has been planned to fit the needs of the campus, and it is different from demonstrations at peer institutions. “We don’t have as much of a political rally, in the sense that people aren’t marching in the streets, and it’s very popular on other campuses to do that, ” says Gurak. “We try to have the protest attitude in other aspects of our programs,” adds Puente. “I think it’s really interesting that we have speak out circles since it’s creating an immediate environment. It’s hard to describe unless you’re there. It’s immensely supportive.”
As Gurak puts it, “When you see your friend or hallmate get up and talk about it, people will say ‘Wow, this is something that affects me in a way I didn’t realize.’ It’s more of a supporting survivors event as opposed to a political rally because there’s a community need for that.” The organizers would like any survivors who feel comfortable speaking to share their experiences, regardless of their sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality or ability. Gurak says, “We have had male survivors share in the past, and we hope that continues in the future. We definitely open it up to experiences that are marginalized in general, whether that’s male, queer, trans, differently abled, etc.”
Even if the format is different, the end goal of Take Back the Night remains unchanged. The organizers believe that the event is one of the best ways that students can stand in solidarity with survivors on campus. “I think it’s really important to realize the depth of the effect of sexual assault on our community,” says Puente. “A lot of people easily overlook it since it is such a silenced experience. Being there shows you all these people you know, all these people you care about, all these people you see every day have been affected in a way you didn’t previously realize. I think it’s great at bringing everyone together in recognizing that this is an issue we really want to fight against and support each other through it.”
Gurak agrees. “I would encourage people to come and participate in whatever way is meaningful for them. This is obviously a difficult event to attend, so I think people need to think about what meaningful participation will look like for them. It’s an opportunity to show your support for your peers who have had this experience and to stand in solidarity with them. ”
Without a doubt, TBTN is one of the most powerful events at Wesleyan, in part because of the people who attend it. “Ultimately, I think Wesleyan is a supportive community, although I recognize that hasn’t been everyone’s experience,” says Gurak. “I think it’s a wonderful part of Wesleyan, and I’d encourage everyone to participate in and promote this supportive environment.”
Take Back the Night 2014 will be held on Thursday, April 24 at 7 pm on Foss Hill. If you would like to get involved with Students for Consent and Communication, or have questions, comments, or concerns, please contact Caillin Puente (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Nina Gurak (email@example.com).