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Difficult conversation: ASU initiative takes on sexual violence prevention

ASU initiative harnesses the arts to help create a culture of consent.
December 6, 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.

Deborah Sussman

Communications and media specialist , Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


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ASU student teams dive into tricky problem of school funding in Arizona

New ASU labs tackle tough issues, including one of the hardest — school funding.
December 6, 2017

MBA students collaborate with students in other disciplines on real-world projects

Education funding in Arizona is one of the most complex, controversial and political issues facing the state.

But a group of Arizona State University students eagerly jumped into this debate, coming up with their own proposals to distribute money to K–12 schools.

The graduate students were part of the first “Learning Lab” cohort, an applied project that paired people in the Forward Focus MBA program with students in master's degree programs in other disciplines. The teams then tackled real-world problems.

“The core values of the W. P. Carey School of Business are interdisciplinary collaboration, applied learning and working on messy problems, and that’s what sparked this idea to pair with non-business graduate students,” said Joan Brett, associate professor of managementat at the W. P. Carey School of Business. She launched the semester-long course, one of the main components of the new Forward Focus MBA.

Brett said that a few years ago, students who were on internships said they needed skills in working with people who don’t speak the language of the business world.

“The students need to be able to understand their perspectives, and value different perspectives, and communicate business concepts to someone who doesn’t have a grounding in business,” she said.

Interdisciplinary efforts

There were four tracks in the Learning Lab this year — two with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, one in social work that tackled issues with foster children and one in education funding. Each track included several teams of students who worked on the problems with faculty from each discipline and then presented their ideas to “client” experts in a pitch-style format. The education funding lab presented to a panel of Arizona school administrators.

On Monday night, seven student teams gave their proposals for a new way to distribute performance funding among Arizona’s 1,900 schools. The funding, a $38 million pot of money, is new this year and was passed by the Legislature as a way to reward high-performing schools, based on standardized test scores. In the end, $24 million of the $38 million went to middle- and higher-income schools. Complicating matters is that many charter schools do not track how many students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch — a vital metric of poverty in a school.

"We're talking about kids and they're not Excel spreadsheets or formulas." 
— MBA student Cory Ramsey

The ASU students analyzed data from the state Department of Education and tried to create more equity in the funding. Among their proposals:

• Adding graduation rates to the metric for a more complete picture of a school’s success.

• Creating a dynamic spreadsheet tool that sets per-pupil funding awards based on different variables, such as school size and demographics.

• Ranking all 1,900 schools in the state according to test scores and improvement in test scores and then adjusting for how many students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, with the top 100 schools winning funding.

The students did not discount politics in their analyses. One team proposed weighing the funding formula in favor of small, rural schools to please the many legislators that represent rural Arizona.

Cory Ramsey, an MBA student, said that while the project involved analyzing data, the human component was critical.

“We’re talking about kids and they’re not Excel spreadsheets or formulas,” he said. “We didn’t want to come across as dehumanizing them.”

Equity emerges as the theme

The proposals all decreased the number of schools that received funding in order to give more money to individual schools.

“Fewer schools received awards but we think this is justifiable because some schools were receiving only a few hundred dollars and that doesn’t do much for the school,” said Vanessa Shaw, a graduate student and a former classroom teacher. Her team’s proposal would create an average $134,000 award per school.

Shaw, who is seeking a master’s degree in public policy in the School of Public Affairs, said it was interesting to see the problem from a business perspective and her team wanted to make the results actionable.

“If I had been given that piece of paper that said, ‘We have to improve graduation rates,’ well, I taught seniors, so that’s on me.

“And $134,000 for a school? As a teacher who made $33,000, that’s a lot of money,” said Shaw, who taught government at Williams Field High School in Gilbert, Arizona for three years.

Her teammate, Jordan Johnson, a student in the Forward Focus MBA program, said she learned a lot from the deep dive into school funding.

“We were trying to see if it’s even possible to balance the human element and the financial element and the overall public policy implication,” she said. “It was a really holistic experience for us that we got to see how business can be applied to problems like this.”

Taylor Pineda, a master's degree student in educational policy in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, said she had learned in other courses about the gap between education research and tranforming that into policy.

"A lot of our policies are pulled out of thin air," she said. "So it was interesting to apply research here and hopefully it will affect how this policy operates in the future."

She enjoyed collaborating across disciplines.

"Everyone brought new approaches to the situation," she said. "We did have to find a lot of spaces where we had to compromise, and we all learned from that."

The education-funding teams worked with David Garcia, an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and presented their findings to Leah Fregulia-Roberts, head of school at Arizona School for the Arts charter school; Anabel Aportela, director of research, Arizona School Boards Association/Arizona Association of School Business Officials; and Roger Freeman, superintendent of the Littleton Elementary School District in the West Valley.

After the Learning Lab teams presented, their expert “clients” gave feedback on the results. 

“They understood the problem and the dynamics,” Freeman said. “The theme of equity that ran through the groups is an idea that personally I agree with but I didn’t expect everyone to agree with to the extent they did.”

Brett said that the W. P. Carey School of Business hopes to add more Learning Labs next year, and the existing labs will tackle new problems. The education lab will look at how to increase the number of Arizona residents who have college degrees.

“It’s good for our students to think about a problem where there is no one right answer,” she said.

Shay Moser of the W. P. Carey School of Business contributed to this story.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News