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Letter to the editor: Healing requires action, not anger

Facebook is exploding. Everyone is talking about it. In 2011-12, Grinnell college heard three cases of sexual miscounduct, and, frankly, didn’t treat the complainants very well. These three women (in this case, all three were women) completed campus hearing processes, and all three of their accused assailants were found responsible of some form of misconduct. However, the women deemed their assailants’ punishments unsatisfactory, for what seems good reason. Now, the three have chosen to pursue charges against the college and seek further changes to sexual assault policies and the ways in which such cases are handled. Huffington Post reporter Tyler Kingkade has written an article about the cases, and US News and other outlets have grasped the story. Both the survivors themselves and President Kington have asked the Office of Civil Rights to conduct a review of the cases in question. This, it seems, is a very big deal.

Let’s get one thing straight: sexual assault response is not a new problem at Grinnell. The way the college handles sexual assault has come under scrutiny for years, though never in such a public manner. Sexual violence on college campuses is a hot topic across the country, as it should be. It really IS big deal—but that’s nothing new.

I stand fully in support of survivors, both those who are featured in the article and those who are not. I commend the courage these women have shown in bringing their stories forward. This is something I care about a lot; I, too, am a survivor of sexual violence, and I know how traumatic and draining the experience is. While I’ve never gone through a hearing process, I’ve been involved in numerous roles revising the college’s responses to sexual assault allegations. Much of this work is motivated by same desire that I believe the women in the spotlight today expressed in founded Dissenting Voices: when something of this magnitude happens, healing often requires making change. To be re-traumatized by a flawed system of investigation only increases that hurt and further drives the need to do something to fix the process.

All of that said, there is something else I know about sexual assault. Action is important in making change, but reaction and retaliation are not the same as action. In the midst of this potentially positive change in culture and the challenge that is being leveled against backwards policy and administrative error, I am troubled by the number of angry and emotional posts I see appearing on social media, and the angry conversations taking place in classrooms and public spaces on campus. The responses I’ve heard come from places of fear and anger. It seems many Grinnellians are looking for someone to blame. I get it: this is hard material to grapple with, and it’s taking place in our own community. It’s easy to be outraged over the cases emerging on other campuses across the country, and to have it happening here is nothing short of overwhelming. We, as students, have a right to be angry. We have a right to demand change. But if angry reaction is as far as this goes, nothing is going to happen. It is in our best interest to remain calm enough to engage in real discourse, and to unite as a community rather than tear each other down in search of immediate relief from our discomfort.

There are a few things that I want to see us, as a community, do. The first, counterintuitive as it may seem, is to breathe. I can speak from experience when I say that it is hard to center oneself in situations like these. Especially for those of us who have been triggered, or are doing battle with the administration, or are processing our own experience with sexual violence, or are learning about this all for the first time, it is hard. It’s appalling. That is the nature of sexual assault. But it does not have to be the nature of our responses.

The next thing I want to see happen, is for those of us who are ready to take action. I appreciate the passion that is emerging around this issue, and I worry that, like too many other issues that come up here in Grinnell, the energy around this will fizzle out all too soon. I want to see sustained change, just like most (if not all) Grinnellians do. What happened to the women being featured in the Huffington Post is unacceptable. We deserve better, and I believe we can have it. But only if we take a moment to think before we act, think before we speak, and think before we judge or condemn.

Please, Grinnellians, do not hate your college. Do not discredit the responses that the administration has already put into place. Don’t undermine the work of so many students, faculty, and staff, who have already been working for many months to improve our broken system. Don’t feel hopeless; change will happen. In many ways, it already has. Social justice has never been a pretty or a straightforward thing. This is a process of two steps forward, one step back—but don’t discredit the importance of that one step forward that remains.

Regardless of how you judge the administration’s motives in their response to this article, their efforts are commendable simply because they are taking responsibility for what went wrong and expressing a desire to improve the process. I appreciate what the college is seeking to do, and I believe that positive change will continue, in our community and in our administration, but it will not be immediate. Much of it is already happening: much remains to be done, but college policy and protocol have already changed since when these cases were mishandled. Grinnell is ahead of the curve, as the article said; while that does not make us perfect nor absolve the administration of blame for its past mistakes, it does deserve some credit. People have worked hard, and the community has made great progress. We will continue to do so.

I know that all of this is challenging, but I want to challenge you even further. Take a deep breath, and try to think before you speak. Seek help, talk to your friends, and brainstorm ways to make Grinnell’s response to sexual violence better. Reach out to Dissenting Voices, Grinnell Advocates, or Active Minds. Take care of yourselves, and do what you need to in order to make it better. If you’re able, reach out in support of the survivors who may have been triggered by all of this discourse. But please, don’t equate a Facebook status with action, and don’t lay black-and-white blame on the administration, student groups, or individuals. The Huffington Post shows one perspective—one that is highly valid, extremely important, and largely right, but nonetheless incomplete. The system needs fixing, and we can help fix it, but only if we work together with everyone involved, including survivors, and respondents, and even the administration.

-Miriam Clayton ’15

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    Elisabeth Bailey '94Mar 11, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Beautifully said, Miriam! I’m posting a link to your letter on the Sexual Assault Services feed for the women’s centre where I work.

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  • M

    Michelle '91Mar 10, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Extremely well put, Miriam. I’m glad they published your voice of healing and peace.
    Michelle ’91

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