Portland State’s 19th annual Take Back the Night event on Tuesday, April 17, “Disrupting the Prototype: Who Gets Believed as Survivors?” focused attention on sexual assault survivors of color and of the queer and transgender community.
“Just as dandelions find life through the cracks in the pavement, this year’s theme centers the voices at the root who continue to regrow, restore and reimagine amid conditions that weren’t made for survival,” the event’s Facebook page described. “We are addressing the unwavering presence of our communities pushing through the cracks in the pavement, nourishing and growing with community-made resources.”
The event marks PSU’s annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Take Back the Night events, which began as marches in the 1970s as a response to a surge in violent crimes against women, aim to educate the public about violence against women and provide resources and support for survivors.
The evening’s events included a panel discussion, poetry reading, raffle prizes from local business sponsors and a night market featuring local artists. Resource organizations, including Illuminate PSU and NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon Foundation, set up information tables. All raffle proceeds went to the PSU Women’s Resource Center’s survivor emergency housing fund, which provides emergency housing for individuals escaping abuse.
Prior to the panel, three speakers, including poet Miriam Gabriel and candidate for Vice President of Associated Students of PSU Lelani Lealiiee, shared their art and experiences with survivor advocacy.
Deborah Shipman, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and founder of the nonprofit organization Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, blessed the land and shared narratives about violence against Native American women. She detailed personal experiences working with sexual assault survivors and the difficulties she faced communicating with law enforcement about missing indigenous women. Shipman said she often found law enforcement officials were aware that missing women were dead long before contacting their families.
Around 7 p.m., six panelists with varying backgrounds working with sexual assault survivors took the stage for a discussion moderated by the WRC’s Sexual and Relationship Violence Response Program Coordinator Alisha Howard.
Speakers included Akilah Powell, member of the shelter and resource center for domestic and sexual violence advocacy Call to Safety, Executive Staff Director for ASPSU and Cultural Resource Centers Special Events Assistant Alex Herrera, and Call to Safety member and educator Cicely Rodgers. Dara Snyder, member of the YWCA of Greater Portland, Interim Executive Director of Momentum Alliance Emily Lai, and campus coordinator for Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force Jackie Sandmeyer also joined the panel.
The conversation concentrated on what speakers called a lack of representation by women of color and by the queer and transgender community in the areas of support and survivorship.
“I have to use [cisgender], middle class, white [women’s] stories to open the narrative, to open people’s ears to even start listening to queer, Black [and] sex worker stories,” Sandmeyer said. “I have to give the statistics of those people who look like the people in power before I can then force them to sit down and captivate their attention to then bring about much harsher numbers and much harsher realities and intersections to race and economy and agency and how these different systems affect us.”
Powell, who identifies as transgender and Black, said they were often the only person advocating for transgender survivors at various advocacy organizations they’ve worked for.
The panel also discussed challenges within sexual assault advocacy, including the distinction between validating survivors and taking action to help them.
Rodgers said a majority of the conversation surrounding sexual assault and violence relates to believing the survivor, and now more people need to take action. “People are drowning in belief,” she said, “but nothing is happening.”
Although the #metoo movement has raised general awareness of sexual assault, Snyder added, that awareness is temporary. “We need to recognize this as an epidemic and public health issue,” she said.