April 23, 2001

Local Activists Take Back the Night

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Cheering “People, unite! Take back the night!” approximately 50 Cornell students trekked down to the Commons last Friday night. Joined by students from Ithaca college and community members, the group converged to rally against sexual violence and abuse.

Over 40 colorful T-shirts, made by survivors of sexual assault were strung along a clothesline. The shirts told personal stories and offered words of hope and healing. “Angela, 14-year-old, was raped by Nicci J. in Brooklyn,” read one small orange shirt.

Along with stickers and pins, blue, purple and orange armbands identified supporters, survivors and Take Back the Night (TBTN) staff members among the large crowd.

Started in the 1970s as part of the women’s movement, Take Back The Night became an annual event in Ithaca community during the 1980s, according to Sarah Stieg ’01, one of the organizers. This year’s TBTN committee started planning the event in February, Stieg said.

Other organizations also showed their support by distributing flyers, manning tabling, and participating in the march. Students Acting for Gender Equality (SAGE) helped poster the campus, according to Stieg.

“Take Back the Night is not just about tonight. It’s about every night,” said Tammy Stover ’02, of SAGE, who led the march down to The Commons from Willard Straight Hall.

“We’re a feminist organization, recognizing that sexism isn’t just about women and it isn’t just males and females,” Stover said, adding that SAGE also takes action against other forms of discrimination, such as racism and biases based on sexual orientation.

“Our goal is not to make the world safe. Instead, we are hoping to keep ourselves safe, and our friends safe,” said Lisa Seri ’00, one of the organizers.

Organizers urged people to take precautions. Seri encouraged people to walk in the streets together when traveling at night. Another organizer urged people to take steps on a daily basis to combat sexism, such as denouncing sexist comments as they are spoken.

“Events like this are very empowering because they afford us the unique opportunity to be around people who have shared our pain,” said Silke Sookraj, grad. “We find strength in knowing [that] we’re not alone.”

Sookraj noticed that people of color were under-represented at the event. “I wonder why they chose not to speak out?” she asked.

“Organizing something of this size is very difficult, trying to bring together separate communities of students and the [area] and find speakers who would represent and reach these different populations,” Stieg added.

TBTN also reached out to sororities and fraternities.

“We want to diversify our audience, and we really wanted one of the largest [area] organized women’s populations to get involved,” Stieg said.

According to Stieg, fraternity members tabled for Take Back the Night.

“So rarely do 200 to 300 people get together to talk about sexual assault, child molestation, and rape,” Stieg said. “We really don’t know how powerful we can be to others when we tell our stories.”

Addressing politics of violence in her speech, Zillah Eisenstien a professor of political science at Ithaca College, remembered victims she had seen all around the world, from Egypt to Bosnia to Ottawa, Canada.

“We must reject the darkness that is created when people feel helpless,” she said. “The nighttime is growing, particularly in the U.S.”

“Here together, tonight, we create our own light,” to combat the darkness of hopelessness, she said.

In order to establish the gravity of the issue, Shannon Willett, Education Director for Crime Victims & Sexual Assault Services (CVSA), formerly Ithaca Rape Crisis Center, spoke on sexual assault. She noted that every 90 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted.

According to Willett, one in four women are sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Of these crimes, only 16 percent are reported, she said.

“Take care of yourselves, take care of each other,” Willett urged.

Take Back the Night is CVSA’s largest outreach program, where they fund the event as well as provide counselors and volunteers to dispense information at the rally, Stieg said.

David Whitmore, an educator at Planned Parenthood and a member of the recently-formed Men’s Center of Tompkins County, raised the issue of educating men about sexually-related violence.

“We grew up in a culture that does not like the idea of men expressing their emotions,” he said.

Also advocating for women, Whitmore mentioned the “white ribbon campaign” in April, in which men sign a pledge that they would not commit, condone, or stay silent about acts of violence against women.

According to Stieg, fraternities have also shown support by encouraging their new pledge classes to sign this pledge.

“It’s really important to support one another,” said Danny Baker, a sophomore at Ithaca College. “There’s hope that we can get through it together.”

Elaborating on the issue of prevention, Cornell Prof. Andrea Parrot, policy analysis and management, questioned what age was appropriate to begin educating and telling children about sexual violence.

“Nobody is born a rapist. Nobody is born a victim. We socialize people [into these roles],” Parrot explained.

She cited examples of this socialization, such as the game Pee Wee football, in which boys are urged to “Do worse to him than he did to you,” she explained, sending children a clear message of what it means to be a man.

“A lot of what our children get is garbage,” she said, specifying Disney movies as another instigator of sending incorrect messages.

“Unless we censor this material or help them understand it,” children will learn messages that could lead them to be sexually violent later in life.

After each series of four speakers, survivors and supporters participated in “speakouts,” sharing songs or telling stories of how violence has affected their lives.

“I never thought I would stand here wearing a purple arm band,” one survivor said, with tears in her eye. “I was angry at myself for a long time.”

She realized though, that “it’s not our fault. [The fact that we were raped] doesn’t mean we’re weak or we made bad decisions,” she added.

“It’s a big step to get up there for the first time and talk about [abuse],” said Maria Cataldo, a freshman at Ithaca College. “[Rallies like these] give women and men a forum for support, understanding and information. By reflecting on their experiences, people can start dealing with these issues,” she said.

Stressing the need to actively combat the problem, Howard Engelskirchen, director of the Multicultural Resource Center noted that “domestic violence costs the country $10 billion in health and crime services.”

Archived article by Heather Schroeder