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CounterAct aims to use art to change conversation around sexual violence

April 3, 2018

ASU's Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts is leading the charge to alter the culture that allows assault

On Wednesday, April 4, ASU students, faculty and staff will participate in the CounterAct Convening, the kickoff to an initiative that integrates artistic expression into efforts to respond and contribute to the national conversation on sexual assault with the goal of changing the culture that makes assault possible and prevalent.

The program, rooted in grassroots efforts across ASU, aims to harness the power of art to navigate the complex emotions, experiences and conversations surrounding sexual violence and healthy sexual relationships by offering powerful narratives, creative spaces for exchange, and new pathways for building community.

ASU’s work in this area has been ongoing for years, but in the era of #MeToo and #Time’sUp, how can the efforts of students and community members on a college campus support a larger movement driven by celebrities and entertainers? ASU Now talked with Steven Tepper, the dean of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts at ASU, which is helping to coordinate the effort, to find out what niche CounterAct can fill.

Dean Steven Tepper, Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts

Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts

Question: First of all, how did this come about?

Answer: In 2014, ASU’s taskforce for sexual violence prevention recognized that the challenges of creating a healthy environment where everyone can thrive free from all forms of sexual violence requires both structural enhancement (policies, processes, procedures, and services) and cultural change.  In response to the latter, the taskforce, comprised of students, faculty and staff, explicitly recommended deploying artists throughout campus to bring their creativity and powerful communications skills to bear on building a healthy culture.

Artists can be our best allies in trying to change the culture. With support of the ASU Art Museum, the idea of a program of artistic and creative responses was presented to leadership across ASU and received enthusiastic support from my fellow deans, Sun Devil Athletics, and the many existing staff and students who work tirelessly on this issue everyday through organizations, programs and initiatives. We formed a University Advisory Committee with faculty, staff and students from across the university in February 2017.   The first program of the initiative was a student devised piece of theatre — "With Each Other" — that was performed for hundreds of incoming freshman last year.

Q: Why ASU? Is there a particular problem here?

A: Sexual violence is a problem that reaches into every space and organization in America — our schools, our families, our workplaces.  ASU shares the challenges that every college in America faces. In the spirit of ASU’s commitment to innovation, our students and faculty want to not only address our campus and culture but to also put forward ideas that can be tested here and transferred to other places. ASU can demonstrate the power of a largescale, student driven response to sexual violence through the power, persuasion and potential of the arts.  It is fantastic to see the creative response of our students whose brilliant ideas and spirit of collaboration can be a model for others to follow. Creativity drives change and we have some of the most creative students in the nation.

Q: Part of the effort is to devise and create “880 creative actions,” according to the CounterAct press release, one for each act of sexual violence every day in the United States. Which sounds impressive. But, at the risk of sounding like an artistic luddite, how is that actually going to stop assaults?

A: We are trying to change the culture that make possible the conditions in which assault takes place. This is not about pulling out the harmful weeds, it is about fundamentally changing the soil. Artists can help victims tell their stories. Artists can imagine a future free of sexual intimidation through song, film, theatre, and images. Artists, through words and symbols, can change what it means to be a victim or how we see perpetrators or even where we look for the root causes of this problem. Artists can find new ways to communicate about resources to support victims and their allies. Artists can create safe zones to discuss difficult and complex issues — places where we can bring play and creativity even to the most painful conversations. Artists can create the platforms and shared symbols that turn individual pain and isolation into a collective movement.  We understand AIDS differently because of the work of artists (the red ribbon) and filmmakers ("Philadelphia") and playwrights ("Angels in America"). Artists have already powerfully responded to the challenges of sexual violence — whether through the songs of Lady Gaga or the paintings of Frida Kahlo or the images of Suzanne Lacy. We are extending this work beyond celebrities to the everyday creativity of students, staff and faculty.  I deeply believe that all of these creative actions will have long and lasting impact on our campus and community, and that they have the potential to contribute in a meaningful way far beyond our immediate environment. Art helps us see differently — and once seen, we can’t “unsee” the problem, the trauma, and, importantly, the pathways of possibility.

Q: Are there any concerns that the art itself could be difficult to consume? That someone who has survived a sexual assault may take issue with its representation in art? Or even just that people will disagree on the helpfulness of any individual piece?

A: Importantly, experts in health, psychology, trauma and education are key allies in this work. When we staged the "With Each Other" performance for freshman last August, we had people onsite with the experience to work with students and victims who might have been moved by what they saw or heard. People can always disagree with an artistic image or idea and we expect many differing opinions in this work. But, we will work hard to ensure that exposure to ideas and artistic content is voluntary and that there are many, many channels for those who find they need additional support.  We are working with two nationally prominent artists in residence who are co-facilitating the initiative, Nik Zaleski and Elizabeth Johnson. Both artists are trained in social practice art — which is an approach that grounds the work in the voices and experiences of the community and holds high standards of ethical engagement and practice.  Between their expertise and the great expertise already on campus to support the emotional, psychological and physical needs of our students, we feel confident that CounterAct will achieve the needed balance of creative expression and respectful and ethically grounded dialogue.

Q: How is this being paid for?

A: The work is supported by contributions from every ASU college and Sun Devil Athletics.

Q: What will occur at the Wednesday event? If people come, what will they see or get to do?

A: Wednesday is a really important event. The Convening is a chance for our community to come together to begin to think about creative responses to sexual violence. The day will include background on the issue and current approaches on campus and across the nation.  But, importantly, the day will do two things: 1) use artistic practices and examples to help people connect to one another around this issue and to begin to imagine their own creative responses; and 2) to provide participants a better understanding of how art and creative expression can be powerful tools for cultural change. We also hope that artists and non-artists will find one another over the course of the Convening and begin to talk about future collaboration. The Convening is the place where many of our 880 creative responses will get seeded and hopefully take root. And, we will hear from noted filmmaker, and keynote speaker Tani Ikeda who is initiating an incredibly powerful multi-media national project  #SurvivorLoveLetter. 

Top photo: During Herberger Day last fall, students practice a choreographic device used in the devising of "With Each Other," the performance that was created for freshman orientation. In this activity participants are using weight sharing to help kinesthetically understand and physically model a reciprocal and mutually balanced relationship. Photo courtesy Herberger Institute

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What's new in the updated Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans?

April 3, 2018

ASU health solutions professor breaks down the science behind government exercise recommendations — and why you should probably stand while you're reading this

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

The physical fitness arena is no stranger to fads. One day it’s yoga this, the next it’s CrossFit that. So it can be difficult to suss out what’s really beneficial to your health and what’s just the flavor of the month.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sought to rectify that situation when it introduced the first-ever Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. This year, the department will release an updated set of guidelines to reflect the latest, most accurate scientific evidence regarding physical activity.

Matt Buman, associate professor in Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions, served as one of nine special consultants for the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report, which will inform the updated guidelines, to be released later this year.

“Before these guidelines, there were recommendations [regarding physical activity] given by various organizations: the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Academy of Medicine, etc.,” Buman said. “But a recommendation is different than a guideline in that a guideline is coming from the federal government, so it’s coming from an organization which has the ability to impact policy and how we as a society organize ourselves to achieve those ends.”

The guidelines have the ability to influence not just the individual person but also organizations, government and even other countries who might look to the U.S. for leadership in this area.

Buman, who researches physical activity and behavioral change, served on the health promotion subcommittee. He and fellow researchers and experts waded through hundreds of reviews of collections of studies, determining whether the evidence for certain health recommendations was weak, moderate or strong.

“It was a massive project,” Buman said, but a useful one. “These guidelines will serve as a reminder to the general public that physical activity is good for you. So in that sense, it’s not just a scientific statement but it’s also encouragement to the general public to be active and to move.”

ASU Now chatted with Buman, who is on sabbatical in Australia researching sedentary behavior, to learn more about the findings of the latest report and what they mean.

matt buman

Matt Buman

Question: What’s new about the report this time around?

Answer: The health promotion subcommittee that I was a part of didn’t even exist in 2008. And there were no statements made in 2008 about what kinds of programs work and don’t work to promote physical activity. This is the first time it will address that. Before, the focus was just on how much activity and what type of activity you should be doing, but not about what types of programs can help you get there. So that’s incredibly new, the recognition that there is a basis of evidence out there about what helps get people moving.

Q: Will there be any changes to the previous physical activity guidelines?

A: What will actually come out in the guidelines is still yet to be seen. However, I can certainly comment on some key differences and new areas of evidence that are emerging in the report. One of which is this idea that physical activity must be accrued in bouts of 10 minutes or longer. That’s no longer something that there tends to be strong evidence for. Essentially, all physical activity counts, whether it’s accrued in one-minute bouts or 10-minute bouts. The evidence being reviewed suggested that it didn’t matter how it was being accrued, which I think is a really important message. It says, look, get out and move, and don’t worry about all the specific rules of how long you’re moving and all that kind of stuff. Just get out there and move, and it’s going to be beneficial for your health.

Another key difference is a greater recognition of sedentary behavior (defined as sitting). While there’s still lots of evidence emerging on sedentary behavior and how much is bad and that kind of thing, one key takeaway here is the recognition that sedentary behavior does matter. For most people, too much sitting is not good for you, unless you’re achieving incredibly high levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity. The evidence suggests that if you’re well exceeding 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity, then you can kind of sit as much as you want. But if you’re down below 150 minutes, which is the vast majority of the U.S. population, then you really ought to be thinking about how much time you spend sitting throughout your day.

Q: You’ve done quite a bit of research on sedentary behavior. How do you get people to sit less?

A: It’s a completely different set of strategies than getting people to exercise more. Sitting is something that’s totally engrained in our psyche. We don’t even think about it. We just do it all the time, and the workplace is one of those places where it’s most likely to occur, particularly for people who have office jobs. The preliminary results of our research are showing that — at least among office workers who sit most of the day — to get them up and moving, or even just standing, it really requires a sit-stand work station. And when we’re able to get people to stand more at work, we’re observing meaningful changes in cardiometabolic risk, particularly among those who are already at risk. So standing more does tend to produce better outcomes, and it does lower cardiometabolic risk.

Q: Can you give an example of how the guidelines might affect policy or public programming?

A: In 2008, the guidelines said 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week is likely to confer health benefits. So that tells us programs focusing on walking — which is moderate exercise — are important. Because if we can accrue 150 minutes of just walking, it has important health benefits. That unleashes the possibility for all sorts of new programs that focus on walking, which is an easy activity to adopt, and we can now invest in better infrastructure, like sidewalks and walking pads that allow people to achieve that guideline.

Q: How might the average person find these guidelines useful?

A: Knowing how much and what kind of physical activity to do can be very tricky. Even knowing that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity is beneficial can be confusing because some might wonder, well, is it 30 minutes a day, or is it 150 a week? And what qualifies as “moderate” activity? It can be complicated, so these guidelines serve as reminders and encouragement.

Top photo: Students hit the treadmills in the fitness center at Vista del Sol residence hall on the Tempe campus. Photo by ASU Now