It Happens Here Travels to Capitol

By Emily Singer

On Thursday, Feb. 28, five students and two faculty members represented It Happens Here (IHH) at a White House event to mark the culmination of the first National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention month.

Luke Carroll Brown ’13.5, Caitlin Waters ’13, Addie Cunniff ’13, Kristina Johansson ’14 and Emily Pedowitz ’13, as well as Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies (WAGS) Sujata Moorti and Director of Chellis House Karin Hanta spent the day with representatives from the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, senior White House officials and leaders of sexual violence prevention programs from high schools, colleges and non-profit organizations.

The group was invited to the event by White House Liaison to Young Americans and Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement Ronnie Cho. Carroll Brown met Cho while interning at the White House last semester, and Cho offered advice on how to better combat the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.

IHH was notified of the event two weeks prior, but was given little information as to what exactly the event would entail. According to Carroll Brown, the invitation noted that the event would be led by White House Advisor on Violence Against Women Lynn Rosenthal and that administrative announcements, a panel and a discussion would be included in the programming.

Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West and Rosenthal spoke at the event. Vice President of the United States Joe Biden and Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, while not mentioned on the agenda received by attendees, were also present to give speeches.

IHH representatives cited Biden’s 40-minute speech as one of the more powerful elements of the event.

“Biden’s speech focused a lot on shifting the societal norm away from one of silence toward one in which not speaking out against gender-based violence is considered intolerable,” said Waters.

Coincidentally, the event was held hours after Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act.

“As we walked into the conference room in which the event occurred, our phones got the notification that VAWA [Violence Against Women Act] had been reauthorized by the House of Representatives,” Pedowitz said, adding that the announcement “made the event even more incredible.”

A portion of the conference was led by Men Can Stop Rape, an advocacy and educational group that aims to engage students on issues of sexual assault and domestic violence in the hopes of shifting the culture on campuses to one without violence, particularly men’s violence against women.

IHH hopes to bring members of Men Can Stop Rape to campus as a means of stressing the importance of defining and promoting healthy relationship behaviors.

The students and faculty walked away from the event with renewed energy and inspiration, especially in looking forward to upcoming IHH events on campus.

“Sexual violence on campus is still massively underreported, and returning from this trip, I believe we need to be examining what barriers are in place and the culture at Middlebury that contributes to the underreporting,” Johansson said. “I believe that we can push our work to end sexual and domestic violence further by taking a leadership role in not only awareness but also in prevention.”

The speeches also reminded attendees that while their actions and audiences are small, the ripple effects are much greater.

“Going to an event such as the one we attended at the White House allowed us to see that we are not alone,” Moorti said. “There are others, younger than IHH members, who are working on these issues. There are others such as Lynn Rosenthal and Joe Biden, [and] such a meeting engenders the belief that change is possible.”

Following the conference, the members of IHH visited with Vermont Democratic Representative Peter Welch and staff members, where Welch pledged to work with IHH in applying for a $300,000 grant from the Department of Justice to increase awareness about sexual assault, increase prevention efforts and improve support for survivors of assault on campuses. Welch will provide IHH with a letter of support and aid in seeking out other grant sources.

Funding for the trip was provided by the President’s Office and the WAGS department. IHH will host a narrative storytelling event on April 22. Students can submit their own personal stories through go/IHH. IHH hosts regular meetings that are open to students, faculty, staff and administrators on Mondays at 9 p.m. in the Chellis House.