Open Letter to the University of Cincinnati

As submitted to our campus newspaper, the Newsrecord on September 15, 2015

After serving for twelve years in the University of Cincinnati’s Women’s Center, I recently resigned as the Interim Director. I write this open letter to our campus community in hopes of inspiring community dialogue regarding the role of identity-based programming in general and survivor advocacy services, more specifically.

When I came to the Women’s Center (WC) in 2003, its then twenty-five year old legacy was well established. Early on, I was moved by stories of the leadership and advocacy of those practitioners before me.  I soon learned why: students seek out the WC and other identity-based centers as they explore and make meaning of their multiple identities and lived experiences. Our space provides opportunity to consider who we are, who we want to be, and build community together as we grow into our whole selves. The Women’s Center holds a powerful place in the hearts and lives of those we serve.

For a decade, I served as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and had the true privilege of sharing in some of the darkest, most intimate moments of our students’ lives.  I witnessed the transformation of countless victims of sexual and gender-based violence to survivors, empowered with community and the passion and knowledge to create change. Advocating alongside survivors in the attempt to navigate complex systems provided the WC with keen understanding of how to improve relevant campus policies and procedures. Together with survivors, the WC effectively advocated for institutional change. The WC has made this campus better. The WC has made this campus safer.

I, like many of my colleagues in this field, was overjoyed and hopeful in April, 2011, when the Dear Colleague Letter was released. After all, we had been giving voice to the issues outlined in this federal guidance for years. This moment provided a critical opportunity for our institution to clarify our values and vision related to sexual and gender-based violence. Unfortunately, it seems our subsequent actions have been largely informed by a fear of compliance, rather than in the spirit of the law.

Together with survivors, the WC continues to center the pressing concerns of how to effectively end the violence at its root and how best to support victims of the violence. For example, immediately after our advocacy services were re-designated with a “limited confidentiality” provision last July, we set out to repair and rebuild the Reclaim program aligned with its historical purpose as a peer-advocacy, rape crisis program. Then, to support the hiring of the first-time, solely designated Title IX Coordinator, the WC led strategic projects to further build capacity and enhance the coordination of response efforts. Partnering with our statewide coalition, Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence (OAESV), we implemented an evidence-based community readiness project to lay the groundwork for effective, comprehensive prevention programming. We directed an external program review to help determine the future of survivor advocacy programming. Based on these findings and through extensive vetting of the position, we hired a full-time Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate who just started June 1.

On this campus and beyond, the WC has provided enduring leadership regarding campus sexual assault. Last November, Lynn Rosenthal, then-White House advisor on Violence Against Women, visited our campus in acknowledgement of the contributions the staff and Reclaim peer advocates made to the National Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the Not Alone report. In partnership with local agencies such as Women Helping Women and OAESV, the WC has served on local, regional, statewide, and national levels to improve campus response efforts. Moreover, WC student advocates provide leadership to these issues as well, presenting at local, state, and national conferences. Just this past May, a Reclaim advocate coordinated a regional symposium, hosted by the Women’s Center, on Campus Response to Sexual and Gender-based Violence as a way to engage in dialogue around the evolving role that campus-based women’s centers play in this work.  A graduate student in Reclaim revamped the peer advocate training binder and this summer, another Reclaim advocate successfully proposed the creation of a co-op placement based on recommendations from the program review to develop prevention programming aimed at critical masculinities. Students grow as effective leaders and engaged citizens as a result of their involvement in the WC.

Given this history and the WC’s strategic efforts to support our campus Title IX response, I offer the following questions for collective consideration:

  • How might this moment provide an opportunity for reflection and assessment of the Title IX response, guided by questions such as “what has been and continues to be the experience of students victimized on our campus?”
  • How might the WC be better positioned as leaders and experts in Title IX efforts, including as key decision-makers?
  • How will campus-based survivor advocacy services be strengthened and resourced? To answer this, it must be first asked: Why was the WC survivor advocate program, RECLAIM, once again destabilized when it is the most established and arguably strongest link in our institutional response system?
  • How might the persistent questioning of “where should survivor advocacy live?” be answered clearly, strategically, and thoughtfully to ensure: 1) survivor support services are effective and accessible and 2) the WC is able to grow and support its other gender-based initiatives?
  • How might UC’s Title IX response efforts change to include: transparent and strategic decision-making, coordination of response, clear communication, and strong accountability?
  • How might the mission of the Women’s Center be more fully supported so that the Center is empowered to effectively meet the needs of students?

The Women’s Center, like all campus-based identity-based centers, plays a crucial role in creating an inclusive campus community. Students from underrepresented groups find a home, a safe haven, in these centers and all students have a place in them to learn, grow, and think more critically about the world. I have had the honor to witness first-hand the impact of this sort of space in students’ growth and development. They come to us seeking their voice, in search of themselves, and ready to join us in our change efforts. When these centers are under-resourced and destabilized, so too are our students’ safe spaces, educational experiences, and lives. I hope that we can learn from our experiences, listen to our students, and with support from strengthened identity-based centers, empower our students to lead the way in working to create a more inclusive, safe campus community.

Sincerely,

Amy J. Howton

UC Women’s Center 2003-2015

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