By Kamryn McPike
While a Rolling Stone article is making sexual assault on college campuses a hot topic, a new project has come to Washington and Lee to air the issue.
It’s part of The Facing Project, a national non-profit organization that helps individual communities “face” a social issue that is chosen based on local relevance. Whatever the issue, it is then voiced as stories from individuals and turned into a book by local writers.
The local projects assume the power of first-person narratives to promote social change, a strategy that attracted Noelle Rutland, a W&L sophomore.
Rutland was attending a Bonner Scholars Conference in Georgia over the summer when she heard co-founders J.R. Jamison and Kelsey Timmerman present on the Facing Project.
Jamison and Timmerman founded the project in Muncie Indiana in 2011 to address the issue of poverty in their community.
The main design of the project is to partner storytellers (individuals willing to share their experiences of the chosen issue) with trained writers with the goal of telling the survivors’ stories. The final product is a book of stories. Sometimes the book is also turned into a dramatic production of monologues.
The first step for a community that adopts a Facing Project is to decide on a social issue relevant to the struggles of the community. For Rutland, the answer was obvious.
“Sexual violence is an issue that gets talked about once a year during Orientation Week and then never gets brought up again but it’s a very real problem for our student body,” said Rutland.
Her project co-manager, W&L senior Anna Kathryn Barnes, feels the same way.
“It is an issue that goes widely unnoticed, unreported, and is not spoken of on our campus,” said Barnes.
Marisa Charley, the staff advisor for the project, seems a little more optimistic about the issue. “I believe that while there is always work to be done, we have come a long way,” she said.
Indeed there are several campus organizations and programs that address sexual assault at W&L. SPEAK is a female student group that promotes sexual assault awareness and prevention and 1 in 5 is the equivalent for male students. “1 in 5” is a group whose name comes from the Center for Disease Control’s national statistic that one in five women are victims of sexual assault.
The amount of sexual assault at Washington and Lee is roughly twice that national average, according to Barnes.
Rutland and Barnes also saw the need for this project in the larger community. Virginia Military Institute and Project Horizon, a support group for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault in Rockbridge County, have also gotten involved.
Rutland and Barnes also aim to include Southern Virginia University, which is presenting a challenge. “SVU is a little more difficult, because there is a very strict Mormon culture and issues like this one oftentimes get swept under the rug,” said Rutland.
They have tried reaching out to some professors and campus leaders but have yet to receive a response. They plan on putting flyers around SVU’s campus anyway.
Regardless, the response from the community has been encouraging, they say.
Rutland and Barnes now oversee a team of almost 100 people. Storytellers of both genders and all ages from W&L, VMI, and the Rockbridge community have signed up. The stories range from experiences of verbal harassment to domestic violence and rape.
“I hope our project will show the community that there is not one single face of a survivor, and will provide some insight into the different ways sexual violence manifests itself,” said Rutland.
The project is still in its early stages. The writers and storytellers will begin collaborating in the winter term.
The book of stories is due to be published in April and distributed for free. Rutland says she hopes to work with a local theater company to produce a play of monologues taken from the book.
One of the stumbling blocks of this project is that personal testimonials of sexual assault are often doubted. It does not help when high profile cases, like the one reported in the Rolling Stone article, are later proven to be inaccurate.
However, the Facing Project is more of an artistic than investigative endeavor. There is no fact-checking and most storytellers chose to remain anonymous.
The goal is merely to start the conversation necessary to begin finding solutions. “It will give storytellers a chance to share their experiences with the community, and it will spark conversation about this issue,” said Barnes.
“I hope that the Facing Sexual Violence Project will inspire discourse on how to address these problems on our campus and beyond,” said Rutland.
This post originally appeared in Facing Sexual Violence in Rockbridge County, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.