The “#MeToo” movement took flight into the media spotlight in January of 2018 as Hollywood quickly aligned it with their own “Time’s Up” efforts at the Golden Globes and on social media, keeping true to the mission of “supporting survivors and ending sexual violence.” Over the past two weeks, I have been interviewing and collecting stories of Hope College faculty and staff that have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment and assault. The stories that follow are those of the people that make up the framework of Hope. As our educators, our mentors, our coaches, our department chairs and our friends, they are sharing their stories, not to discourage us, but to let us know that we are not alone as we navigate through our own lives.
In an interview, Dr. Vikki Lynn Holmes of both the Math and Education department detailed many stories of gender and racially based harassment that she has experienced throughout her years of schooling. She began the interview by sharing different pieces of her story that revolve around the focus of trying “to hear the heart of what people are saying,” which is a phrase that has guided her to listen to the stories people share before moving to judgment. As a black woman, she has been scrutinized for her level of expertise despite her double PhD, asked to change the way she dresses and accused of not being nurturing enough. Dr. Holmes described these comments as hurtful micro-aggressions but also emphasized that she has always seen the beauty of Hope as innately outweighing the systematic ignorances. In her words, “I have hope for Hope.”
Although Dr. Holmes spoke of a lifetime of gender-based and sexual harassments, she also spoke of a sexual assault that she was a victim of while a graduate student at the University of Louisville. As she reported her friend that forced himself upon her, the counselors she spoke with told her to move on from the incident and “go out and have sex and take your power back.” She said that time has changed things and that she has been impressed with the recent actions by Hope to seek an end to sexual assault. Dr. Holmes, along with every faculty and staff member I spoke to, made a point to highlight the efforts of Title IX director Sarah Doer and victim advocate Christian Gibson. Dr. Holmes said Doer and Gibson have changed the sexual assault conversation at Hope.
Although the media portrayal of the #MeToo movement has been predominantly focused on women, I decided to open my interviews up to faculty and staff of all genders to be purposeful in my pursuit of collecting a holistic representation.
Although, statistically, sexual assaults are more common among women, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reported that 1 in 33 men have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.
I was able to sit down with a male member of the Hope faculty, who wished to remain anonymous, who shared several stories of sexual assault concentrated in his time as a professional dancer. He experienced several acts, approximately 14 in seven years of professional dancing, of unrequited sexual advances by superiors, including rehearsal directors and patrons of his company. The dance world can, at times, be a hub for this kind of corruption, but the faculty member I interviewed attested this tendency to the competitive nature and performance demand of dance that carries into many similar fields.
Since these assaults, he has come to recognize his story as a responsibility to help students looking to safely navigate this side of the world of dance. As he said, “I am happy it happened to me so I can have a context to grieve.” He also went on to suggest ways that Hope as a community can create a safer platform for victims. He suggested that we change diction around sexual assault to include incidences that happen outside of the stereotypical weekend parties so that as a community, Hope can be more inclusive to any and all stories. Systematically, he believes this starts with increased conversations about sexual assault and mutual trust between students, faculty and staff.
I interviewed more faculty and staff members who wished to remain anonymous and received anonymous written story submissions. From a coach that has grown up witnessing the horrendous hardships of domestic violence but seeks to empower students to treat each other with respect and love to a professor stuck in the mix of a workplace drama that still has the willingness to sit and listen to a student working through mistreatment from a superior, the overwhelming resilience of Hope faculty came through. However, many of the stories I heard and read portrayed a less than pamphlet ready version of Hope.
One alumni staff member shared with me a time when a visiting professor told her that in order for her to make it in her field, she would have to “sleep her way to the top.” Although she shared her longtime struggle to recognize the words as harassment, she learned to see the words for what they were when she asked herself the question: “How would I react if a student reported this to me?” Her advice to any students struggling to come to terms with their experiences of sexual assault and harassment is “if it’s a little off color, say something.” I also heard stories of gender-based mistreatment and harassment of female faculty from department chairs and other men of authority. Yet I also received a submission that simply wanted to say that even as a woman in a man dominated field, the submitter has never experienced mistreatment or harassment at Hope or any place of work, in hopes that students see that although the spotlight of these stories are growing, students should not feel discouraged from pursuing the work they are passionate about.
However, the relationship between #MeToo and the highly followed media platforms that allowed it to take shape was heightened when the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a group dedicated to the well-being of U.S. farmworker women, wrote a letter published in The New York Times in solidarity with Hollywood women involved in exposing the sexual abuse allegation of Harvey Weinstein. The women farm workers were the catalyst for conversation, and the stories I have collected over the past few weeks will hopefully play that role at Hope.