We Talked to the Director of the New Office of Survivor Advocacy and Community Education

Two weeks ago, Antonio Farias emailed out some updates to Wesleyan’s policies and support networks relating to issues of sexual assault on campus. In the email sent on February 1st, which can be read in full on the Equity & Inclusion blog, Farias announced the hiring of Johanna DeBari, M.A. as the director of the new Office of Survivor Advocacy and Community Education (or SACE, for short).

DeBari partially fills the role of Alysha Warren who, before she took a job at Williams beginning Fall 2017, was in charge of survivor advocacy, running the We Speak We Stand performance during New Student Orientation and bystander intervention training programs, and worked in CAPS as a licensed therapist specializing in trauma resulting from sexual violence.

After the email was sent out, I reached out to Johanna for a Wesleying feature on the new office, her goals for the position, and her past research on sexual violence on campus. We ended up doing an email interview. Here’s what we talked about:

wilk: What is SACE, and where is it located?

Johanna DeBari: The Office of Survivor Advocacy and Community Education (SACE) is a new office which has grown out of the foundational advocacy work of Alysha Warren. It is a space designed to support survivors confidentially, advocate trauma-informed policies, and educate the greater Wesleyan community using primary prevention methodologies. It is located in the Davison Health Center, Room 218.

w: What is the overall mission of the office?

JD: The mission of the SACE Office is to empower survivors and those connected to survivors, of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and other forms of interpersonal violence through survivor-centered, trauma-informed advocacy services, healing workshops and retreats, trainings, and education programs within the Wesleyan University community.

This mission is in service of a larger vision to empower survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and other forms of interpersonal violence and educate the greater Wesleyan University community about these acts of violence and responding to them in a trauma-informed way.

w: Are there any pre-existing initiatives that are now housed within SACE (I’m thinking of things like WeSpeak WeStand Bystander Intervention Training)?

JD: At this time, no. The WeSpeak WeStand Bystander Intervention Training is actually a program run through the WesWell Office and WeSpeak WeStand Facilitators. The SACE Office will work collaboratively with WesWell to conduct these trainings.

w: Are you planning any new advocacy/education programming for the coming year?

JD: As of yet, I don’t have anything firmly set in stone. I am trying to take my time in understanding the dynamics and history of the Wesleyan community to best be able to serve its members. I want to understand what work is already being done here so that I can work collaboratively with folks in creating new projects and building on current ones.

I also want to be intentional about setting a solid foundation for this office, informed greatly by the work of Alysha Warren and the invaluable connections, structure, and resources she left behind. I want the work of this office to be meaningful for the Wesleyan community and a sustainable piece of the supportive structures here. To me, that means asking a lot of questions, taking time to process, and integrating as much feedback as possible.

w: How does your role differ from the one previously held by Alysha Warren?

JD: My role is primarily different from Alyssa Warren’s previous role in that I am not a licensed therapist or counselor. I am an advocate. This means that I work with survivors to explore options for how they would like to move forward or begin their path towards healing, and then support them in accessing those resources. If someone is looking for ongoing mental health treatment and/or counseling, I will refer them to CAPS and ensure they get the support that they need.

w: Are there plans to hire a licensed therapist at CAPS who focuses on supporting survivors of sexual assault?

JD: Unfortunately, I don’t know and can’t speak for the folks at CAPS. I would suggest reaching out to Dr. D’Andrea for questions this questions and other questions related to CAPS’ work.

w: In a climate where many survivors on campus have lost faith in various institutional forces at Wesleyan, how do you plan to re-establish connections with these students?

JD: I think the most important thing is establishing trust and promoting transparency. In all of my work, I do my very best to be open and honest about my own strengths, limitations, and boundaries by which I can engage in advocacy and support survivors. This starts with expressing the nature of confidentiality with students, to let them know that they are able to share as much or as little of their narrative as they want, and I don’t have to immediately report that information (other than in the form of a Confidential Crime Report, which is a de-identified report required of most campus staff that is sent to Campus Safety and only used in data collection purposes in compliance with the Clery Act & Title IX).

It also means functioning from a survivor-centered, trauma-informed approach. This means I ask more questions like “what can I do to support you?” or “what do you feel is the best way to move forward now?” rather than dictating what someone “should” or “shouldn’t” do. I let the survivor lead the conversation, explore their own set of personal resources and options, and then discuss with them in a collaborative way how we can create a path towards healing that feels best for them. Survivor-centered, trauma-informed advocacy, I believe, is the best framework for empowering survivors to feel in control of their narrative and what happens following these experiences of violence.

Finally, it also includes being transparent about the structure of the SACE office and seeking feedback regarding its creation. I could spend my days sitting in my office crafting policies and procedures in a silo, but if it doesn’t resonate with the community that I’m serving, then it means nothing. That’s why I’m starting my first semester at Wesleyan asking more questions, than dictating answers. I am setting up a lot of meetings on campus, trying to connect with student groups, and get the word out about the SACE office and its services, while also expressing an openness for collaboration.

w: Is your role connected in any way to advocacy to survivors of sexual assault outside of the student body (e.g. faculty, staff)?

JD: Yes. I am a resource for faculty and staff, as well as students. Part of the reason I think this is important is because I want the SACE office (and my position) to be a resource not just for primary survivors of sexual violence/dating violence, but also for those who work with survivors, who know survivors, and who are otherwise connected to survivors. In advocating for trauma-informed policies and creating a more trauma-informed environment which supports survivors, I believe we have to engage everyone in the conversation and ensure everyone feels empowered to show up and hold space for survivors in a trauma-informed way.

With this, I think faculty and staff should have the knowledge and resources for supporting survivors and responding to disclosures. This ensures they are prepared to respond empathetically if someone does choose to share their story with them. Part of acquiring that knowledge may also involve recognizing personal experiences of trauma and seeking support and guidance in healing from it. In getting support and exploring options for healing in the wake of personal trauma, it will ensure faculty and staff are better prepared to serve students as well.

w: I read here that you did a Master’s thesis on sexual assault against women on college campuses. What are key takeaways that you learned from this that the average college student might have misconceptions about?

JD: The main takeaway I learned from my Master’s Project was the importance of personal positionality, intersectionality, power, and privilege, in relation to personal lived experience. In the interview I conducted with students, personal privilege and identity became salient factors in how students conceptualized their sense of security regarding sexual violence. Male-identifying students felt less vulnerable to the threat of sexual violence, than female-identifying students. In addition, those who did feel threatened by this violence didn’t experience the threat every day but conceptualized the threat in relation to their preparedness to handle potential situations. This was connected to stereotypical myths of what sexual violence looks like, regarding carrying weapons, not walking alone at night, and most importantly, participating in “party culture” (i.e. high-risk environments as identified by participants).

However, it’s important to note the limitations of my study, in that I had a very small sample size (only 11 students) so my conclusions cannot be extrapolated to represent the entire population of the community. From this exploratory project though, I realized the importance of intersectionality and having conversations of identity in relation to sexual violence prevention programming and/or bystander intervention trainings. I carry this insight with me in planning future education and/or training initiatives here at Wes.