When you work for an organization with a social justice mission, running headlong into injustices that break your heart and ignite your rage is a hazard of the job. So, as CEO of YWCA Bergen County—with the mission: eliminating racism and empowering women—and as a licensed social worker with twenty years of experience in working with sexual assault survivors, including several years with Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Sex Crimes, I have seen and absorbed plenty, including being part of thousands of investigations of the rape of children and supporting the sexual assault survivors through the criminal justice process, including the excruciating process of preparing victim impact statements.
It doesn’t matter what and how much I’ve seen. There is no such thing as becoming numb to atrocity. The so-called Stanford swimmer sexual assault case floored me. I was appalled. But the uproar around the case, the amount of discourse, incited me to pose a question: what now?
Now that we’ve all read or heard accounts that describe the horror of the attack and what this young woman endured, now that we’ve learned of the heroic actions of two young men who were able to stop that rape from continuing, now that we’ve all recoiled at the bewildering lightness of the sentence the white, privileged former Stanford student- attacker received…what will we do with all of this awareness and outrage?
Again, as CEO of YWCA Bergen County, which runs the county’s only designated sexual assault resource center, healingSPACE, and as a career warrior for the protection of sexual assault survivors, I feel compelled to seize this moment of collective consciousness to suggest that we not just sit with our outrage but take action:
- Read this woman’s impact statement. PLEASE. I’ll say it again, READ WHAT SHE WROTE. I have to believe that every person who reads this account will be enlightened about the insidious evil that has become part of our American campus culture, a culture where somehow Brock Turner believed what he was doing would be or could be acceptable.
- Read Vice President Joe Biden’s open letter to this woman in which he underscored that sharing her story “must have been wrenching—to relive what he did to you all over again. But you did it anyway in the hope that your strength might prevent this crime from happening to someone else. Your bravery is breathtaking.”
- Consider the discussion surrounding Judge Aaron Persky and his decision to give former Stanford University student Brock Turner, who was convicted in March of three felony counts—assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, sexual penetration of an intoxicated person and sexual penetration of an unconscious person—a mere six month county lock-up sentence. Ask the question: if Brock Turner had been a young man of color, would this judge have thrown the book? Read the statistics that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites and that African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). The disparity is striking. According to Americanprogress.org, “once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders.” The U.S Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes.
- Consider what you can do. There are plenty of opportunities to support survivors of sexual assault and programs that educate the community and professionals working with these cases so that we do not have to continue to watch outcomes like this one occur. One is our healingSPACE Program. The tireless work of our staff and volunteer advocates run the Clothesline Project where survivors express their feelings by decorating a shirt and let those shirts hang as testimony for all to see; our community education programs that focus on safe bystander intervention when one sees such wrongdoing and understanding the nature of sexual violence and how it impacts survivors, where we go into the community and educate our children and young adults about mutual respect, the threat of sexual violence and what to do to stop it; and our 24/7 healingSPACE hotline where a collective of everyday heroes works constantly to intervene in the face of sexual violence. Become a volunteer…make a donation.
Above all, if you walk away from this case with nothing else, I ask that you realize there is so much that can and needs to be done.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle is among the state’s legislators who recognize the culture of violence and disregard that has made way for what happened to this young woman. I salute her for helping to author the bill that created New Jersey’s Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault. It is a direct response to the findings of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault that one in five women is sexually assaulted in college.
I was honored to be appointed to this task force and when it convenes later this month you will be sure I will have this young women and the other survivor stories I carry with me, in mind during the discussions. In fact, this young woman’s words to other women will be ringing in my ears. “I hope by speaking today,” she said, “you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere…”