By: Michaela McGrath
The Take Back the Night initiative has a history that stretches back to the 1970s. It was born out of early marches and protests against sexual violence in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia. The movement is based on the idea of reclaiming the night that women have been told to take precautions against, to be fearful of: a setting that is known to many survivors as a reminder of their pain. Take Back the Night has evolved into a worldwide union of survivors and allies, together finding freedom in the cause of eliminating sexual, relationship and domestic violence in all forms.
Take Back the Night events are held on campuses and communities on a global scale. Colleges and universities are forced to pay special attention to issues of sexual violence, as women aged 18 to 24 are at the highest risk of assault. In fact, one in five women are sexually assaulted and one in four women will experience some form of domestic violence or abuse.
Sometimes statistics make alarming realities feel too abstract, but they have very real consequences and affect those closest to us all. This reality has set in on our campus, most notably in 2015, after a petition surfaced accusing former Dean of Students Carrie McLaughlin of mishandling a reported sexual assault.
Serious concerns about sexual assault and its institutional response have led to an outpouring of support at Take Back the Night events on campuses nationwide. At Niagara University, last spring, over 400 students were eager to show up and have their voices heard.
Niagara student Sarah Joslin, a student representative who now serves as an assistant coordinator for the event, echoes the thoughts of many involved in planning TBTN, who were surprised by its enormous turnout last year.
“We expected maybe 100 people to show up and 400 showed up,” says Joslin. “It was the most unbelievable thing to see everyone come together like that for such an important cause. We had this ceremony and candlelight vigil at the chapel. Just to see all these survivors and non-survivors come together and fight for the same thing was so beautiful.”
One fundamental reason for TBTN’s presence on campus is Dr. Dana Radatz, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice. An active member of NU’s Women’s Studies Committee, Dr. Radatz joined with Dr. Jennifer Beebe, an Assistant Professor of Counseling, to plan last year’s event beginning in the fall of 2015.
Dr. Radatz says TBTN was successful in part because students, especially of this generation, want to join a significant cause.
“I think that students gravitate towards something they can be a part of,” says Dr. Radatz. “The notion of attending an event, doing this active march, but also taking part in an experience and being supportive, is really at the heart of the Vincentian mission.”
The event and march not only bring students together, but bring issues to light that may take a back seat in our everyday lives.
“I think a lot of the time it’s very easy to just ignore issues,” says Sarah Joslin. “With something like Take Back the Night, it’s such a big event and so well advertised, and we have so many people on this campus on the committee, that running an event like this is an amazing way to get students involved and to educate them on sexual assault, sexual violence, and domestic violence.”
One group on campus is spearheading discussion on these issues year-round. In the fall of 2015, Emily Palmero founded NU’s only feminist club: Feminism Today. While the club is in some ways brand new, the women running it have already made an understated impact and they intend to continue doing so.
At one of their weekly Monday meetings, current club president Madison Boehler spoke to the group about their plans for this semester. In addition to being a part of TBTN again this year, Feminism Today plans small events that raise awareness about the issues they care about, such as a table highlighting extraordinary women from history for Women’s History Month.
Speaking about TBTN, Boehler says one of the best things about the evening is that so many people come together. On March 30th, Feminism Today hopes to set up a table at the event to educate people on sexual assault.
Feminism Today is also working to dispel myths about feminism.
“That is something that has a big stigma on this campus–what feminism really is,” says Boehler. “That’s why Emily [Palmero] wanted to start this club, because people on this campus don’t really know what it is or what its goals are.”
As for what feminism really is?
“Feminism is all about choices,” Boehler says. “It’s about being able to choose what you want to do.”
Boehler hopes that people on campus will choose not to stay silent.
“Part of being a feminist is using your voice,” she says.
Feminism Today is also excited about the prospect of collaborating with other clubs on campus for TBTN, such as the BSU, MSA, and the NU Alliance.
“We can all work together for the same goal,” says Boehler, “which is a better campus and a better world.”
One of the many community sponsors of the event this year is Family & Children’s Service of Niagara, a non-profit agency that offers inter-related services throughout the Niagara area.
Since 1895 the agency has provided victim services and programs for families. These include a domestic violence shelter, counseling and youth services such as their maternity group for teenage mothers, as well as Casey House, a homeless youth and runaway shelter.
The Director of Domestic Violence and Parenting Services—soon to be Director of Development and Communications—at Family & Children’s Service of Niagara, Karrie Gebhardt, has been a fierce advocate for these issues for over 15 years.
Gebhardt says the importance of events like Take Back the Night is that they bring a more objective, educational perspective to these topics.
“I think the only way someone can become aware is if something is around you,” says Gebhardt. “If any violence is happening in your own home, many times it’s normalized. We don’t necessarily think it’s violence and sometimes it’s all you know.”
This change in perspective is significant for students attending college for the first time. Becoming aware of domestic and sexual violence, Gebhardt says, is a way to empower ourselves and others in our lives.
“We might not have the healthiest role models around us,” she says. “So, this is something that is objective which teaches us what an unhealthy relationship is, how to get help, and how to help somebody else.”
Gebhardt attended NU’s TBTN event last year and found the experience powerful. She was impressed that the campus, including professors and students, came together and embraced the concepts being presented.
Apart from attending larger events such as TBTN and last semester’s Red Flag campaign, students can find other ways to advocate for these issues on their own, especially by becoming educated.
“Educate yourself,” says Gebhardt. “If you have a friend who you think is going through something, learn how you can help him or her the best, because guys are not immune to this either. We have to be very aware that this happens in every type of relationship.”
The imperative of education is a common thread among the experts organizing this year’s program.
“I think one of the things I try to teach my students, and people in general, is that you don’t necessarily have to know what to do for someone who has been victimized,” Dr. Radatz says, “but you should always know where it is you can go to find someone who does.”
Awareness also extends beyond larger issues into the social sphere, where daily interactions on certain topics make all the difference.
“It’s really important that you don’t blame a victim, and that you remain a supportive person,” says Radatz. “One of the things you can definitely do is support someone who shares their victimization.”
Dr. Radatz says the theme for TBTN this year is bystander intervention: the idea that anyone has the power to take a stand against violence and victimization. She says NU is taking a lot of steps to integrate bystander intervention practices, and to teach students, faculty and staff about how to be a bystander if you see something. It’s about knowing that everyone has the power to make a difference.
Organizers of TBTN hope this year will be even bigger than the last. There will be an opportunity to visit tables set up by NU clubs and sponsors to discuss various issues. The program will feature guest speakers, including Martha LaCourte, a victim specialist with the NY State Police. The night will end with a march and candlelight vigil held in the chapel.
The first 500 students to arrive will receive a free backpack.
Take Back the Night will take place in the gym in Gallagher Center Thurs. March 30th at 7 p.m.