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Difficult conversation: ASU initiative takes on sexual violence prevention

December 06, 2017

For the past month, the #metoo revelations — and the resulting national conversation about sexual harassment and sexual violence — have dominated the news.

At Arizona State University, university-led programs and conversations about how to address these issues — which are alarmingly common on college campuses around the country — long precede the current news cycle.

As a result of those conversations, more than 500 freshmen in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Barrett, The Honors College started their fall semester by attending an original performance called “With Each Other.”

The 35-minute play, devisedDevising is a process in which a theater piece starts not with a script but with a group of people who toss ideas and experiences around in order to develop a narrative. in the spring by a group of ASU students with input from faculty and staff, imagined a graduation ceremony in the near future that celebrates the contributions of ASU students toward creating “a culture of healthy sexuality and consent on campus.” 

Guided by Nik Zaleski, a visiting artist who has done similar work with Ensemble Lab member Michael Rohd, and dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Johnson, the cast of six actors presented multiple scenarios that ultimately asked the question: How do we foster healthy relationships and an environment that does not tolerate sexual assault with each other, in our intimate relationships and wider community? 

“There’s a lot of emphasis right now on freshman orientation because the first six weeks of a college freshman career is the most dangerous for sexual violence,” Johnson explained. 

“‘With Each Other’ is testimony to how the arts can create the imaginative space necessary to confront issues that are difficult for us to talk about publicly or to deal with privately,” said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute, who also participated in the performance, via video. “We were able to build, with students, a performance that allowed freshman to engage the urgent issue of sexual violence through a positive and empowering set of stories. 

“The production is part of a larger university-wide initiative, supported by each of ASU’s colleges and Sun Devil Athletics, to integrate arts and design approaches through coursework and existing student and university efforts around responding to sexual violence in our community,” Tepper said. “This is a cultural crisis affecting every university in the nation. ASU, in keeping with Herberger Institute’s mission to expand the role of arts and design in society, wants to be a national model for innovative ways to change the culture around sexual violence.” 

Each performance of “With Each Other” was followed by small workshops led by the actors and designed to address some of the issues the play raised, such as consent, survivor support and bystander intervention. Zaleski and Johnson worked with ASU’s Health and Wellness, part of Educational Outreach and Student Services, to develop the workshops.

“One of the things that has made this initiative so successful already is that we have partners in Health and Wellness (at ASU) who are helping us root it in the good work that is already happening on campus,” Zaleski said. “So there aren’t a bunch of siloed efforts happening but it’s really about using these tools to lift up the messages that Health and Wellness are already promoting.”

In particular, Zaleski and Johnson credit Kim Frick, program manager for sexual violence prevention in ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services, for the help and input that she and her office provided. For her part, Frick said that ASU is always looking for “innovative and scalable solutions to complex issues. This project helped the community think different about delivery strategies for sexual violence prevention.”

Short play, lasting impact

Rikki Tremblay, a doctoral student in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communications and one of the actors in “With Each Other,” said she wished that every student at ASU could have seen the performance and attended the workshops.

She told the story of one student who said dismissively at the start of a workshop she was leading, “I don’t see what this has to do with sexual violence.” 

“I invited him to participate and see what he learned,” Tremblay said. “By the end, he was supporting and nodding to others’ responses and asked where he could go for more resources.”

After first seeing “With Each Other,” Bird Ruff, a student majoring in biological sciences who uses they/them pronouns, said with some astonishment: “Who I am as a person was just acknowledged. I’ve never seen myself in anything. Here is a non-binary asexual character!”

Ruff was so moved that they wrote a song in response to the play, which they shared with the cast and crew.

Ruff's song, in turn, moved cast member Nikki Truscelli.

“Bird has touched my heart and made me reflect on many ways in which I interact in the world,” Truscelli said at the end of the play’s run. “I am much more sensitive to personal pronouns, both within the classroom and outside the classroom. Bird says that the play has changed their life, but I feel like the honor is all mine."

A graduate teaching associate in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Truscelli noted that one student who attended a workshop she led on victim-blaming had a revelation: “When he heard his own thoughts and opinions spoken aloud to the victim ('You should not have dressed like that' and 'You drank too much'), he recognized the ignorance that such words and thoughts held. This demonstrates the power of the post-workshop experience.

“There’s magic that happens when you teach things this way.”

Reaching the audience

That magic is inherent in the design and arts experience, said Megan Workmon, manager of student engagement for Herberger Institute.

“It’s all about communication,” Workmon said. “It’s knowing your audience and how to best reach them and then creating interactive engaging experiences that can pique their interests or encourage their curiosity or inspire them to get involved.”

In addition, she said, “It takes a lot of empathy to be an artist or designer, and part of the solution to sexual violence on campus is empathy.”

“What I particularly liked about ‘With Each Other,’” Workmon said, “is that it was rooted in student experience and then workshopped with a collaborative group of students and then performed by students for students.”

As the first semester of Ruff's freshman year draws to a close, they are still thinking about “With Each Other.”

“It was such a beautiful show with an important message that needs to be heard,” Ruff said. “I'm grateful that I was able to see such an emotional performance, because it has left a mark on me and helped me better understand myself and others.” 

More timely than ever

Alesha Durfee, an associate professor in the School of Social Transformation who provided feedback on “With Each Other” before it was performed, is looking forward to the Humanities Lab she’ll be team-teaching next spring with Lizbett Benge, an artist and doctoral student in gender studies who’s earning a certificate in socially engaged practice in design and the arts through Herberger Institute. Durfee said the idea for the class grew out of the sexual violence prevention initiative.

Humanities Lab founder and director Sally Kitch “is committed to the idea of tackling these really difficult topics,” Durfee said, “and obviously sexual violence is impacting so many people right now.”

As Kitch explains it, “the idea of the Humanities Lab is to get students to develop their own researchable questions and then answer them, even if only in a preliminary way, and to disseminate those answers — which is why performance or public art is so perfect and why the arts help us create the public forum in which some new ideas can be disseminated and discussed.”

Durfee has taught a course in gender and violence since 2005, when she arrived at ASU, and teaches a course on domestic violence policy. But, she said, she’s never taught the subject “from an interdisciplinary, arts-and-humanities based perspective, so I’m really excited to do that.” 

“We’re hoping that out of this course, we’ll have a regularly scheduled course that will be larger and that we could do as a core course for the Sexual Violence Prevention certificate that’s being proposed. That’s the hope, that we can do something that truly integrates social sciences, humanities and artistic expression and generate a course that’s taught every year or every other year.” 

Durfee is also the mother of an ASU senior who’s a residential assistant in the Herberger Institute dorms.

“She went (to ‘With Each Other’) and her students went, and she thought it was truly amazing. Her students had a really positive reaction to it.”

So did Durfee.

“I thought it took a really unique and innovative approach to the topic,” she said, “rather than the traditional approach that puts a lot of the impetus of preventing sexual assault on the woman. And I think they’ve done a really good job in sparking conversations on the topic among the students.” 

“It’s perfect timing for this initiative,” Durfee added, “because people are having these conversations and they’re doing it in a really different way. I think this is a unique opportunity — we’ve never had these broader conversations in the way we’re having them now.”

Top photo: ASU students Dirk Fenstermacher (left) and Nikki Truscelli are two of the six actors who appeared in "With Each Other," a performance that looks at ways to prevent sexual violence on college campuses. Photo courtesy Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

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