By Christine Sampson
Women’s rights activist Tarana Burke was joined onstage at Stony Brook University on Sunday by some alumni the of i-tri program for whom Ms. Burke’s decade-old #MeToo movement has hit a little too close to home.
Her message was about how to create “radical community healing” in the face of revelations of sexual assault, abuse and harassment and domestic violence — which have existed for pretty much as long as anyone can remember, but which have only recently begun to come to light in public. Healing can be accomplished, Ms. Burke said, by talking openly about these issues and bringing together different groups to create policies, safe spaces, services and practices to combat the problems head-on.
“We have to have those conversations as a community. That’s how you heal,” she said. “When was the last time you attended a community conversation about sexual violence, really? It wasn’t very long ago that those of us who do this work had to do this almost covertly.”
With i-tri as one of the organizers of the event, alumni Abby Roden, a founding member of i-tri, Noely Martinez, a survivor of domestic violence, and Maria Chavez, a survivor of sexual assault, helped launch a movement dubbed #LIToo, “an ongoing effort to build awareness and bring safety and gender equality to Long Island.” Modeled after a United Nations framework, the #LIToo effort is seeking representatives from the business, youth, nonprofit, school and government sectors to come together to effect change. To get involved, send an email to Colleen Merlo, executive director of L.I. Against Domestic Violence, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This is epic,” said Maria, who is a senior at East Hampton High School. “I feel like this is just going to keep going, and it’s going to make a change. We will get there, I just know it.”
In the audience Sunday was Pierson High School junior Emily Hallock, who said she realized that no one is immune to the threat of sexual assault.
“This isn’t just an issue that plagues a specific age group, social class or ethnic group,” Emily said. “It can happen to anyone. It’s a taboo and emotional subject, but how can we remain silent when so many of our friends and family members are suffering? These women are not victims, they are survivors, but we shouldn’t have to have the word ‘survivor’ because nobody should be assaulted in the first place. Sexual assault is an epidemic that will not stop until we start talking about it.”
She said before the #MeToo forum, she was having trouble understanding how she could help without overstepping boundaries. Ms. Burke had addressed that issue by saying it’s OK for an ally to reach out and say “I’m so sorry that happened to you. How can I be helpful?” without being too forceful with offers of assistance, because that makes the healing process about the ally rather than the victim.
“I learned that the best thing that I could do for someone is to empathize with them,” Emily said. “This is the foundational belief of #MeToo, to let survivors know that they are not alone and that other people feel their pain and emotions. Healing through empathy allows people to feel validated rather than ostracized, and make the healing process more community based.”
Another Pierson student, freshman Rachel McKelvey, said she was shocked to find out sexual assault is more common than she realized, and disgusted to hear that oftentimes perpetrators are not brought to justice — so much so that it made her feel sick.
“I thought it was very empowering to hear about what politicians are doing as well as what people in the community are doing to help survivors, because they have the same amount of power as the influential figures or in fact maybe even more, because they personally reach out to these people and help them heal,” said Rachel, who is an i-tri alumnus herself.
Cassie Arbia, a Pierson senior, also thought it was an empowering forum.
“It was cool to see that it wasn’t an all-women crowd, there were also men there,” she observed. “It was nice hearing about how things like social media can be used for the better and to help other people, and it was nice to see other classmates were there and that it was important to them.”
Cassie said an event like this should be brought to Pierson.
“The first way to start a movement or make any change is talking about it,” she said. “This was the beginning, one of many events, and it needs to be discussed more. It’s something horrible that needs to change.”
Theresa Roden, the founder of i-tri, said she was proud of her alumni for facilitating such an important discussion with Ms. Burke.
“We were so honored to be one of the organizers of this impactful event,” Ms. Roden said. “When Ms. Burke started #MeToo over 10 years ago the idea was ‘Empowerment Through Empathy’ — how two little words, ‘me too,’ can open the door to great healing. i-tri is an empowerment program for girls in which empathy is a big component of what we teach. … it was a perfect alignment for i-tri.”