Student-Run Conference Goes Beyond #MeToo

By NICOLE POLLACK

The sixth annual student-organized global affairs conference, “Beyond #MeToo: Global Responses to Sexual Violence in an Age of Reckoning,” was held between Jan. 22 and Jan. 24. The conference, organized by Grace Vedock ’20 and Taite Shomo ’20.5, began with an Atwater dinner, followed by a series of lectures and screenings over the next two days.

“Beyond #MeToo” emphasized the varied global perception of sexual violence, looking at the #MeToo movement through an international lens in an effort to spark deeper discussion among Middlebury students, particularly those who do not ordinarily take an active stance on such issues. The organizers cited a talk last spring on the global implications of #MeToo by Sujata Moorti, Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, as their inspiration for the conference. 

Vedock and Shomo both saw the conference as a success, describing engaged students and great faculty at every event. The only letdown, Shomo said, was attendance. “I think we both wish that more people had shown up to the events,” she said.

Turnout ranged from an estimated 50-60 people at the Atwater dinner to significantly fewer at most of the screenings and lectures.

“I think a lot of people are really reluctant to engage in these conversations,” Vedock said. “It’s something that, as a society, it’s gained a lot of traction, media attention, things like that, but when it comes to actually showing up and having the hard conversations and engaging, it’s not something that everyone can do — for various reasons, we understand that, of course — but it’s hard to get people engaged. It’s really, really hard.”

“If I could title this article,” Vedock said later, “it would be, ‘Show Up.’”

The first screening, shown in Axinn immediately after the Atwater dinner, was Roll Red Roll, a documentary detailing the complicated aftermath of the assault of a teenage girl by high school football players. The film exposed the extent to which rape culture is ingrained in the United States through the story of one small Ohio town. 

The following night, UN Sex Abuse Scandal, which features personal accounts by survivors of sexual assault at the hands of United Nation Peacekeepers, was also shown in Axinn. The Frontline documentary focused on conflict zones in Central Africa as survivors, witnesses and officials described an issue that is still very much unresolved.

Associate Professor of Political Science Sarah Stroup led a discussion immediately after the screening, during which most attendees expressed shock about their own lack of awareness about such a major international issue and questioned why more was not being done.

“When I asked, ‘What else you would want to know to understand this story,’ many of the students reported interest in more insight into how the UN and its peacekeeping missions work,” Stroup said. “Both Professor Amy Yuen and I regularly discuss those topics in our upper level political science classes.”

Other invited lecturers broadened the scope of the conference. Janet Johnson, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, gave a talk titled “#IamNotAfraidtoSay but not #MeToo: Russian Women’s Ambivalence in Claiming Sexual Autonomy.” Another lecture by Tina Escaja, Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont, was titled “#Cuéntalo: Black Moon/Luna morada and the #MeToo movement en español,” and focused on the interpretation and effects of the #MeToo movement in particular regions. Vedock described Escaja’s talk, which focused on art and poetry as a form of resistance, and the speaker’s poetry reading, as “breathtaking.”

The final speaker was Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Associate Dean for International Programs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who gave a talk called “More Than a Public Reckoning: The Need for Laws.” De Alwis is recognized worldwide for her expertise on women’s rights. She started the Global Women’s Leadership Project in 2017 to support UNESCO and UN women’s work on peace and justice and women’s human rights.

The conference concluded with a panel moderated by Karin Hanta, director of Chellis House Feminist Resource Center, called “The Age of Reckoning at Middlebury College,” which explored next steps regarding sexual violence at Middlebury.

“At the final discussion about the future of Middlebury, one thing that we talked about a lot with the people who were there was wanting to implement more preventative strategies, like teaching about consent, and teaching about healthy relationships, rather than reactive things, like Green Dot, or like the sexual assault posters in the bathrooms,” Shomo said.

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to put on this event,” Vedock said, stressing the need to approach sexual assault as a cultural issue.

“We had a great discussion at the end that left it on — maybe not a positive note — but a hopeful one,” she said.

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