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FEAR Project at Seattle University

October 30th, 2007

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I’ve wanted to do this concept for years but lacked a client, the funding, and a community to work with. This event was finally spawned earlier this year when I was introduced to Deb Hinchey, the Director of Wellness and Health Promotion at Seattle University. Our mutual interest in saving the world, and in issues surrounding trauma, were a cause to connect. A birthday party (hers), spilled wine, and similar relationship sagas were starters, but when one of my friends started dating her I was reminded just how awesome Canadian women are and saw a potential client turn into a true friend.

While we had months of planning time, of course we left it to the last minute. But together Deb and I, with the help of Deb’s Peer Health Action Team (PHAT), her graduate adviser Ryan, in cooperation with Student Activities, and with Housing and Residence Life, in ten days we built a model program we can now offer as a FEAR Project service to other campuses. In fact, our first client request came shortly afterwards from the University of Washington, Tacoma.

We spent one day making portraits of the campus community, building a body of work that put faces to the statistics, and then a week later had a gallery opening with prints and a looping media show. In a highly traveled part of campus we asked people if they wanted their portrait done to acknowledge they are part of a community affected by sexual violence; it was a non-traditional approach to public awareness and the admission that sexual violence doesn’t just happen to “those people over there” but it happens “here, in my community, to people I know.”

Some of the project goals were to:
• Create dialogue in order to build an aware and empathetic community less likely to silence survivors
• Decrease the stigma surrounding the reporting of sexual assaults on campus
• Engage students in the issue of sexual assault in a creative way through the combination of photographs and narrative, creating an impact far greater than statistics alone
• Gather anecdotal data about the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault on the Seattle University campus

The photo session started off calmly as the PHAT volunteers put up signs and polished their statements; imagine making eye contact with hurried students, staff, or faculty–people actively avoiding your eyes–and approaching them to talk about sexual violence–rape, of all things. Not only that, but you have to explain as they proceed to walk on by that you want their portrait, a model release, and an anonymous questionnaire. Well, before long, I had people waiting for me to take their portrait and, at times, the wait was five to eight people deep. I could have used a second shooter. I think the volunteers did an amazing job of recruiting and running the show; I only had to make pictures.

I processed the images, sent them to the printer, then left town for my sister’s wedding. Again, the volunteers–chiefly my “intern,” photographer Andrew Hida, Deb’s GA Ryan Hamachek, and student Stephanie Squires–handled the rest by mounting 50 prints for display. All I had left was to build the media show.

Why is all this a big deal? Personally, I’m just happy it went off well. But let’s start with the first request for our services: the University of Washington, Tacoma. Next, Deb’s boss asked her to submit the project to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Excellence Awards; apparently this is a big deal in the world of higher education.

What really excites me is hearing that students were going back to their dorms and asking their friends if they’d had their picture taken; looking a portrait subject in the eye to thank him or her and hearing back “no, thank you;” to have busy people make a point of coming back later in the day to pose; to have classmates and fellow faculty come specifically for the portraits; later, when at the opening, to see these same people arrive with their friends in tow to see their portraits. All of this was done in the context of sexual violence awareness; it was providing a safe way for students to start the dialogue and see how receptive someone may be.

But let me just qualify all of this with some hard data Deb shared with me. She writes in her NASPA award proposal:

“Sexual assault is a serious issue on college campuses across the nation. At least 1 in 4 college women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her academic career.(1) About 90% of rape and sexual assault victims on college campuses knew their attacker prior to the assault,(2) and women who attend college are more likely to be sexually assaulted than women who choose not to attend college.(3) On the campus of Seattle University (SU), data collected through the National College Health Assessment in 2007 reflect similar numbers. Despite these alarming statistics, less than 5% of all rapes or attempted rapes on college campuses are ever reported to authorities. (4)

“The Office for Wellness and Health Promotion recently entered its second year in existence on the SU campus. In its role, the Office develops and implements sexual assault prevention, awareness and response programming. However, despite repeated efforts to reach students through workshops, speakers and the like, attendance at such events has been minimal, begging the question of what can be done to create the necessary dialogue around this critical issue.” (at left: the senate plays for the opening)

Well, it looks like the FEAR Project helped create that dialogue, and not just to tell women how to be afraid. We want to change social norms around sexual violence; it’s not just a women’s issue, nor is it only a men’s problem. It is a community issue we all must address. Next up? Packaging this for other campuses and communities.

(1) Hirsch, Kathleen (1990)”Fraternities of Fear: Gang Rape, Male Bonding, and the Silencing of Women.” Ms., 1(2) 52-56
(2) Rennison, Callie M. Criminal Victimization 1999: Changes 1998-00 with Trends 1993-99. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, August 2000.
(3) Sexual Assault on Campus NIJ http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/205521.pdf
(4) Sexual Assault on Campus NIJ

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