A pair of graduate students at Queen’s University is bringing together researchers and professors, sexual assault advocates, university staffers and administrators, student activists and politicians to put the spotlight on sexual violence prevention on campus.
Bailey Gerrits, a PhD candidate in political studies, and Roxanne Runyon, a master’s student in gender studies, lead a committee hosting more than 200 attendees, 30 volunteers and 26 speakers at the Ontario Universities Taking Action Against Sexual Violence, taking place at Queen’s from Aug. 10 to 11, 2016.
While much attention has been paid to universities’ response to sexual violence on campus, the OUTA conference focuses specifically prevention.
“Response is super important because sexual violence is happening [on campuses] but it also needs to stop,” said Ms. Gerrits. “We think universities have the capacity and the ability to actually change these structures.”
The conference grew out of a 2015 research project on sexual violence prevention Ms. Gerrits and Ms. Runyon conducted through the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) at Queen’s. Their report found that several postsecondary institutions were already running effective programs. “We talked to people who are doing things [on campuses] that we think need to be implemented throughout all institutions,” Ms. Gerrits said. She points to bystander intervention training run by Charlene Senn out of the University of Windsor, the wellness peer support program at the University of Guelph and the Anti-Violence Project at the University of Victoria as scalable examples.
It followed that they should convene several postsecondary and community stakeholders to share insight into their successes and challenges in delivering a range of prevention programs. “Universities have the capacity to put funding towards these programs, to support student initiatives, to implement their own programs,” Ms. Gerrits said. “Little by little, these [programs] chip away at the factors that have allowed sexual violence to flourish on campuses.”
The conference agenda is organized into three topics: effective institutional models of prevention; effective prevention programming; and building relationships to end sexual violence. Ms. Gerrits notes that the last of these streams is perhaps the most abstract but also an important determinant of how successful a prevention program will be.
“We identified that one of the biggest barriers to prevention is failed relationships, or working in silos, or not engaging stakeholders, or viewing sexual violence as isolated from off-campus sexual violence,” Ms. Gerrits said. Representatives from non-profit agencies working to end sexual violence, Ontario MPP Sophie Kiwala and Ontario’s Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, Tracy MacCharles, will all speak to the importance of strong partnerships between postsecondary institutions, the local community and government in order to eliminate campus sexual assault.
Conference organizers have also aimed to open dialogue within the university community in order to encourage administrators and staff to keep a student-centred approach to the issue top of mind.
“I know there are really great people working in these postsecondary institutions who are invested in making sure that students don’t experience sexual violence. At the same time, I’ve heard from administrators [on the topic] who think through it as a liability issue,” said Ms. Gerrits, who has personally experienced the frustration of navigating complex university processes and procedures while trying to report a violent incident. “They don’t want to get sued, or they don’t want to see their enrolment drop, or they see sexual violence as inevitable … Prevention isn’t going to happen through a liability framework.”
Volunteers and participants will be live-tweeting from the conference using #OUTA2016.