Office of University Life on the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When I began as special advisor to University President Lee Bollinger on sexual assault prevention and response last July, I had spent the past couple of decades as a social justice advocate and, more recently, as a legal academic. For nearly 10 years after law school, I worked on LGBT and HIV issues with Lambda Legal, and, after that, as a Columbia law professor, I was writing about equality theory and practice, co-directing the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and running a clinic in the same area.

As a result, I came into the special advisor role with strong views that social change requires not only policy or legal change, but also—and importantly—engagement with the surrounding environment. At Columbia, it seemed to me, this would involve creating opportunities for dialogue, learning, and action related to the role of sexual respect within the University community.

But how do you get started creating these opportunities for more than 20,000 students across a large university? Where do you begin when there is so much that might be done—and yet it’s impossible to do everything at once?

My first step was to talk to others who share a commitment to making Columbia a place where everyone has the opportunity to participate free from gender-based misconduct and other harms, and who had the time and energy to create something new. As it turns out, there are many of us at this University—including students, faculty, and administrators in each one of Columbia’s schools.

With just a few months to create a thoughtful, large-scale initiative, students—both undergraduates and graduate students—have been essential partners. Same with deans of students from throughout the University who work extensively with each school’s richly diverse student body and faculty.   

And, fortunately, Columbia has a wealth of subject-matter experts—in sexual assault response, trauma, sexuality education, program evaluation, and more. Many of these experts—including individuals from Sexual Violence Response, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Mailman School of Public Health, the School of Social Work, and beyond—generously committed their time and ideas to making this happen.  

This is how the “prevention working group” that developed the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative, including its goals, methodology, and offerings, came to be.

Then, when some of these experts, along with students and others, supported the idea of a creative arts option as another means of engaging the link between sexual respect and community citizenship, the Arts Option Committee came into being. Joining together from the School of Social Work, the School of the Arts, Arts and Sciences, Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of Continuing Education, students, faculty, and administrators worked to complement the planned workshops, film discussions, and other offerings by inviting students to create and submit artistic works that connect to and support a culture of sexual respect and community engagement.

As the initiative takes hold, we hope and expect that many more students and faculty will become interested and join in, and that more ideas will be generated as we learn from experience and continue this work into the future.

This process has had—and will continue to have—a strong commitment to collaboration, with ideas coming in from everyone in the group and many beyond. While group work presents familiar challenges, in that not everyone’s ideas can hold sway all of the time, it also offers a crucial benefit: The initial vision becomes sharper, the ideas and implementation become stronger, and the commitment to keep moving in the face of challenges is shared.  

What’s the result? Columbia now has its first ever initiative that has, as a central goal, to engage all Columbia students on the connection between sexual respect and community membership.  

With the understanding that students approach this topic with widely varying interest as well as personal experience—some very difficult and painful—the initiative aims to maximize choice so that all students can find ways of learning, reflecting, and acting on the link between sexual respect and community membership that are most personally engaging and meaningful. At the same time, students and everyone else made plain from the outset that to achieve widespread, meaningful engagement—which is an essential part of strengthening the University community—participation would have to be required. And it is.  

Importantly, though, choices are plentiful because no single option is likely to be just right for every student’s interests, experiences, and preferences. Again, workshops, film discussions, individual and small group reflection, and an opportunity to create and share videos, creative writing, and other arts are among the offerings. In addition, the “Finding Keys to Resiliency” option provides extensive and varied activities and resources specially selected for survivors, supporters of survivors, and others who have experienced trauma. Other forums, workshops, and events that will be scheduled throughout the spring will provide additional opportunities to sustain and expand the conversation.

Will this meet everyone’s preferences or expectations? Probably not. Some may find the offerings burdensome, and others may find them not challenging enough. Being within an institution focused on learning and the production of knowledge, we—both the working group and the broader community—will surely be able to learn from these reactions and the new ideas generated as we continue to engage with what it means to be a member of the Columbia community.  

But is it good? Yes, certainly. By participating, you will gain something for yourself, and you will be involved in helping to create a new model for Columbia and beyond.

In the process leading up to the initiative’s launch and in looking ahead to how our community will build on this initiative, I often thought—and shared with prevention working group members—an expression that I know from the legal advocacy world and that you might recognize as Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” While we aspire to perfection, we need to take steps to get there. And if we wait to act until we have the masterpiece in hand, we will miss many opportunities to achieve good with what we have been able to do.  

The point, in other words, is that we have an opportunity, now, with this initiative, to make progress in addressing a problem that is as urgent as it is longstanding. And to learn from these efforts as we build toward the future.

I encourage and invite your affirmative ideas and suggestions in addition to your thoughtful critique. It is your participation, engagement, and actions that shape our community and, ultimately, can help achieve its extraordinary potential.


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