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Gender Equity Coalition Collaborates To Fight Sexual Violence On Campus

Despite its youth, the Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition is already making a big impact on the Penn State community.

The coalition works to educate on issues like sexual violence and reproductive justice. Lately, its efforts have focused on increasing transparency within Penn State’s administration on those topics.

The group’s work is divided into four categories: research, advocacy, orientation programming, and supporting survivors and victims. Among their practices, members research the campus climate and document student’s experiences, help coordinate Schreyer Honors Orientation, and provide resources to students seeking assistance and information about sexual violence on campus. 

The Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition was founded in 2019 by now-Penn State alumni Erin Brown and Priya Hosangadi. Nora Van Horn, a senior philosophy major and current vice-chair of the coalition, said that she got involved with the coalition when Brown invited her to collaborate in the creation of a platform educating others about sexual violence.

Through hours of research, Van Horn and Brown searched through documents, institutional commitments, and the prevalence of sexual violence at Penn State. Their research uncovered a dire need for greater transparency within the university, and a need for more student advocates to be fighting for such serious causes.

In 2015, Penn State President Eric Barron committed to releasing survey results about sexual and interpersonal violence every three years. However, by 2018, no such results were released, and Brown met with administrators and sent emails trying to bring attention to the matter.

“It seemed that the kind of rhetoric they were using was saying ‘next month’ or ‘by the end of spring semester,’ but none of these commitments came to fruition,” Van Horn said. “After Brown, I learned that the position of director of sexual assault and misconduct prevention within the [University Park Undergraduate Association student government] was never refilled. And I had joined the Gender Equity Coalition, so I turned to Sonika, head-chair of the coalition, and told her that if we didn’t get a response, this was the type of thing the Gender Equity Coalition could take charge on.” 

Together, with other team members like graphic designer Caroline Silver and website designer Evelyn Moore, the coalition pushed forward.

The group recently published an open letter calling on the Penn State administration to release the results of the 2018 survey and commit to administering another survey this year.

“There was a necessity to take it into our own hands and make it publicly known that the institution has failed to make this commitment,” Van Horn said about the open letter.

The Gender Equity Coalition reached out to organizations within the Schreyer Honors College, including the Multicultural Association of Schreyer Scholars, Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schreyer, and the Gender Equity Center at Penn State. 

“They are the experts in this issue and we asked them to go over our open letter before it was released. This kind of created an early group of people who knew about it and were invested in it and they told everyone they knew,” Sonika Kohli, head-chair of the coalition, said. “Also, there was the climate of the campus with people sick of this happening over and over again and no action being done. The increase of the warnings has really opened peoples’ eyes.” 

The open letter and surrounding efforts paid off. On September 20, Penn State finally released the 2018 Sexual Misconduct Survey results, along with a promise to release the next survey in the spring of 2022. Still, the coalition insists plenty of work remains.

“The release of the survey report excited us. But ultimately, we were disappointed about the content of the report,” Van Horn said.

The survey results revealed that 19% of undergraduates and 7.1% of graduate/professional students across Penn State reported being the victim of at least one instance or attempt of sexual assault. Approximately 68% of undergraduate students and 73% of graduate students shared in the survey that they believe the university would take reports of sexual misconduct seriously.

The Gender Equity Coalition felt concerned by reported increases in sexual misconduct at Penn State. Other issues included the survey’s lack of depth, its lack of inclusive language, and the university’s apparent lean-in to “alcohol assault” victim-blaming stereotypes.

“In particular, we were concerned by the selective release of data and the failure to report information about survivor-victims’ attitudes about the efficacy of the university’s resources and sexual misconduct response and locations of sexual misconduct,” Van Horn said. “Questions were asked about these things. Information was just omitted.”

The Gender Equity Coalition also released a response to the 2018 survey stating its concerns. Additionally, it published a graphic that demonstrates that the Timely Warnings in 2015 represented only 3% of the sexual assaults reported to the Office of Student Conduct.

“It feels disheartening how widespread this issue is and how it’s met with administrative inaction,” Van Horn said. “How can we expect to be safe and feel welcomed in a community when the structures in the system that were supposed to support us are flawed and there’s a lack of transparency?”

Kohli said that sexual violence is deeply entrenched in Penn State’s culture and fabric. She says people in power are either enablers or bystanders in this behavior.

“The general vibe on campus that I am getting is that enough is enough and leaders aren’t doing anything,” Kohli said. “Penn State students should be free to walk outside and not be afraid of anything. They shouldn’t need to change their behavior to feel safe and think ‘I just need to protect myself’ or ‘I just need to do X, Y, and Z so this doesn’t happen to me.’”

Since the coalition is housed within the Schreyer Honors College, members are primarily focused on institutional reform within Schreyer. Now, they are preparing to host a diversity roundtable that’s supported by the college’s dean. The roundtable serves as a resource to amplify voices and viewpoints of historically underrepresented groups.

“Everyone in the group really cares about making Penn State a better place,” Kohli said.

Among its plans for the future, the coalition plans to work with Schreyer to create cultural competency goals for all scholars to complete before they graduate.

“Sexual violence is one thing that we care about, but it encompasses so many other identifiers,” Kohli said.

The Gender Equity Coalition has also collaborated with other groups such as Penn State Lotus, which creates a safe space for healing BIPOC women who have experienced sexual violence. With this collaboration, the coalition hopes to be able to increase its outreach to more students and survivors of sexual violence. 

“I think it’s integral to recognize that Black, indigenous, and other women of color have been in the front of pushing for change in so long and often don’t get recognized,” Van Horn said. “Our work would be impossible without their work.”

Although recently released survey results and new indicatives on campus are making progress, there’s always more work to be done. To learn more about the Gender Equity Coalition and how to get involved, check out its website.

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About the Author

Renata Daou

Renata is a junior majoring in International Politics and one of Onward State's contributors. She's from Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil and no, she doesn't live in the middle of the Amazon forest. She likes learning new languages, reading, writing, and talking about the one time she went bungee jumping.
Follow her on Twitter @renatadaou to see her rant in Portenglish or e-mail her at [email protected] for serious inquires.

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