It was 54 degrees. The sky was clear, the stars were out. Other than a soft breeze rustling the still-bare early spring tree branches, the University of Connecticut campus was silent.
In other words, perfect weather for activism.
Armed with signs, candles, chants and a hunger of social justice, scores of students marched down Hillside road and up Fairfield Way Wednesday night as part of Take Back the Night, a feminist empowerment event organized by the Violence Against Women Prevention Program (VAWPP) as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Survivors of gender-based violence (which includes sexual assault, rape and other forms sexual or gender-based harassment) were encouraged to speak out and given a safe space to share their stories, support fellow survivors and work through the healing process. The theme for this year’s Take Back the Night was ‘We Rise’ as students clad in phoenix-blazoned t-shirts emphasized the role of rebirth and renewal from traumatic experiences.
The night’s main event, a solidarity march around campus, was heard loud and clear. Chanting slogans such as “Shatter the silence, stop the violence,” the throng made their way across UConn, marching past the Chemistry Building and Wilbur Cross as they rounded their walk to Fairfield Way. The UConn Police Department flanked the crowd, clearing the way for safe passage.
As the crowd marched past North Campus, several students in New Haven Hall cheered and shouted out of an open window, giving the participants verbal support.
Preceding the march were several presentations in the Student Union Ballroom from different UConn student groups and organizations. UConn’s Chief Diversity Officer Joelle Murchison attended, sharing her perspective and experiences with gender-based harassment.
“Many of us wear a mask everyday, to hide the things that impact us,” Murchison said. “This is an opportunity to take the mask off, to take the steps toward healing.”
Murchison, who was a sexual assault prevention mentor in her college years, highlighted the impact that race can have on the rate of sexual assault.
Native American women are statistically more likely to experience sexual assault, Murchison said, with 70 percent of those assaults being perpetrated by non-Native Americans. Those in the LGBTQ community are even more at risk, she said.
Part of the reason for the prevalence of sexual assault, Murchison said, is because of its role in culture and society, particularly in music, as well as perpetuated gender norms.
“It’s something that we should be concerned about,” Murchison said. “We can’t deny that [sexual assault] is around us in society. We need to radically shift gender socialization [and] the expectations about what women should do.”
Murchison emphasized the need for community and solidarity in fighting sexual violence, and encouraged students to unite and take a stand against misogyny and aggression.
“Push the envelope,” Murchison said. “I know that, together, we can make a difference.”
Along with Murchison's speech, student groups Greeks Against Sexual Assault and the Men’s Project gave speeches on the role of student activism in preventing gender-based violence.
“It’s very important that men participate (in the conversation),” Craig Alejos, an eight-semester human development and family studies major said. He is also co-facilitator for the Men’s Project, which aims to educate male-identified students about connecting with survivors of sexual violence.
“At the end of the day, this is our community,” Alejos said. “If we allow misogynistic statements to infect our campus, it won’t end.”
In addition to the speeches, musical-based Praise Dance Ministry Performance and the UConn acapella group Drop the Bass performed, the former dancing to the song “Raise Up” by Andra Day, and the latter singing a heartrending mashup of “There’s a Place for Us” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”
Students then gathered outside for the march, reconvening afterwards for a speak out, which allowed survivors to tell their stories in a safe space.
“I think that (Take Back the Night) gave a nice community feel,” Alyssa Occhiboi, an eighth semester political science and human rights double major, who attended Slut Walk in the Fall 2016 semester said. “It’s a great place for survivors, activists and people who want to feel empowered and have a safe place.”
Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.