By MICHAEL CAVANAUGH
On a cool spring evening, students gathered in Rodrigue’s Coffee House for an spoken word event entitled Surviving in Numbers: Speak Out. The event, organized by the Women’s Empowerment group and sponsored by RHA, Flipside and Peer Education, provided students who have been victims of sexual abuse with a safe place to perform their work. Before the readings, the Women’s Empowerment group noted that though many of the emotions and sentiments expressed by the performers may be identifiable for the majority of the crowd, they do not express the official opinions of the Women’s Empowerment group.
Performances included a number of poetry and prose readings by both students and alumni. The original work presented by these individuals reflected on the trauma inflicted upon them by either being a victim of sexual abuse, or someone indirectly affected by it. Those in the latter group, called allies, who are both men and women who have joined the fight to end sexual abuse and help those affected by it, recounted how they became involved in this fight and how they plan to contribute in the future.
In addition to the performances given by students and alumni, Women’s Empowerment invited well-known spoken-word poet and LGBT rights activist Staceyann Chin to speak at the event. Chin, an openly gay immigrant from Jamaica, read excerpts from her memoir, The Other Side of Paradise – A Memoir, and spoke openly and candidly about her own experiences with sexual abuse. Having been a victim multiple times throughout her life, Chin says it is something that always sticks with you. This is especially true, she said, in the all-too-common situation in which a victim is told that he or she provoked the situation, and that it is his or her own fault.
“You’d think after you hear [about sexual assault] a couple of times you become numb to it,” Chin said. “But it’s the kind of terror that never dies.”
Chin also believes, as many survivors and allies do, that there needs to be a constant discourse on the topic of sexuality and sexual abuse so that it remains relevant.
She and other students who presented, however, warned against making ones own participation in this discourse too much about oneself, rather than the cause itself and those it seeks to help.
In addition, she spoke about the concept of “strategic coming out,” which involves planning to come out at a time that is safe for the individual.
“It’s not about your headline, it’s not about the march,” said Chin. “It’s about keeping people safe.”
Students walking past Rodrigue’s during the late evening would undoubtedly hear raucous waves of laughter throughout the night, despite the seriousness of the discussion. Chin, a very passionate speaker, kept the atmosphere of the event comfortable and safe with her humor-laden poetry and prose.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to laugh at yourself. It’s how I stay healthy,” said Chin.
Chin was very positively received, and was seen off with great applause.
“She was a magnificent, vibrant speaker,” said Dan Murphy, FCRH ’13. “It was really enjoyable, and it was a really nice ending to an extremely emotional night.”
Genevieve McNamara, FCRH ’17, was one of the students who helped organize the event and chose Chin as the guest speaker.
“We brought Staceyann because we think she’s a really powerful speaker, especially on this subject,” said McNamara. “While she speaks from her experience really well, and that’s what we wanted with this, we wanted to create a space where people could speak from their own experience and their own views, nothing anyone says is necessarily what Women’s Empowerment believes. But, we’re really proud to bring Staceyanne here and to have this space for Empowerment and healing.”
Many students remained after the event to congratulate one another on their readings, and to thank Chin for her contribution to the event, creating a satisfyingly intimate end to an emotional night.