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New Gender Equity Initiative’s first events highlight domestic violence awareness

Oct. 28, 2015

Nancy Forsstrom and Dave Patten light luminaria. Nancy Forsstrom, program coordinator of CCRI’s new Gender Equity Initiative, and Vice President for Business Affairs David Patten light luminaria during the initiative’s recent “Let the Light Out” event to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month’s Week of Action.

Organizations across the country called attention to Domestic Violence Awareness Month through a Week of Action, offering support and resources and remembering victims. At the Community College of Rhode Island, it also marked a time for a new group – the college's Gender Equity Initiative – to gain visibility on the four campuses.

From Oct. 19 to 23, every campus featured its own Domestic Violence Awareness Clothesline Project installation, with items of clothing representing the 32 people who have died as a result of an act of domestic violence in the state between 2003 and 2012.

Members of the Gender Equity Initiative also staffed tables where visitors could leave messages of support on poster board as well as obtain resource materials such as informational pamphlets and phone numbers for crisis centers. The week's events were capped off with "Let the Light Out," an event at the Knight Campus where participants shared reflections on the effects of domestic violence, honored the memory of victims, and raised tethered luminaria into the night sky.

"I think everybody knows someone who has been in an abusive relationship or was a victim of child abuse," said student Jennifer Lee of Providence, a Social Work major who was staffing the initiative's information table at the Knight Campus one afternoon.

On the table was a sign-up list for students interested learning more about the initiative, resources from domestic violence shelters such as the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, where she interns, and a poster where students had left messages such as "Violence is never the answer" and "There will always be people ready and willing to help you. You are loved."

"We want to promote awareness about domestic violence, but also get the word out about the Gender Equity Initiative. It's a nice way of getting involved," Lee added.

The Gender Equity Initiative began this spring, said Program Coordinator Nancy Forsstrom, after Dean of Students Michael Cunningham had noticed a certain level of discomfort among students in different at-risk groups on campus. Working with an intern, Torrie Lewine from Roger Williams University, a steering committee of faculty and staff was formed to come up with an action plan to promote empowerment, inclusion and awareness for topics such as domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual orientation, gender expression, transgender issues and more.

"It's so broad that it sort of boggles the mind," said Forsstrom. "It's really for every age, every gender."

Lewine sent a comprehensive survey to the campus community to collect demographic information and gather data on what gender-related matters the community see as important. Nearly 1,000 people responded to the survey, offering valuable feedback that continued to shape the committee's action plan. The survey also garnered 10 student volunteers who have continued to remain active as the initiative moves forward.

"From a student affairs perspective, we didn't feel like we were doing enough outside of the classroom to really have these conversations," said Cunningham. "We want to get started by getting some awareness programming going on and see how we can move on to make our community more inclusive and more equitable."

As Forsstrom pointed out, there are challenges to creating a true gender equity "center" on a decentralized campus such as CCRI's. Whereas four-year institutions often have a residential component, CCRI is spread across the four campuses; hence, the center is not located in any one geographical place, but rather is an interest group with a broad reach. "Our first order of business is to educate people on what this means and what we're doing," she said.

The events during the Week of Action were certainly part of that, and Forsstrom shared several anecdotes of students approaching her or one of the student volunteers about get-ting involved, or sharing their own experiences as victims of domestic violence. The initiative will continue to plan awareness events, often coinciding with different national movements – World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, for example, or Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April.

Forsstrom said that another objective is to hold trainings for students, faculty and staff so that they can operate as "safe zones."

"These are people who are willing to be a resource when someone needs to go to a place and be sheltered," she said. "You'll have decals on offices or desks that let people know there are different places to go to get help."

Forsstrom said training also gives community members appropriate pathways for seeking help. Those without counseling backgrounds, for example, are not expected to give counseling. Rather, they are armed with a protocol of where to send people in need.

"It doesn't matter that people don't live here, it doesn't matter that not all the students are full time," said Forsstrom. "If they are here, then we have an obligation and an opportunity to give them whatever resources they need. I think that everyone needs a community. ... If people are coming here to get educated and improve their lives here, they should also feel supported and safe and like they belong. And issues of gender equity are not only hard, but they're hard to talk about. We need to make a space to talk about them."

Email the Gender Equity Initiative for more information, to become involved or to request assistance.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16