Masked and vaccinated, hundreds of students, faculty and staff joined on the grounds at the StFX Stadium to recognize that while positive change has happened concerning sexualized violence, much work is still needed to address a culture of sexual violence on university campuses.
The annual Take Back the Night event was organized by the StFX Office of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Advocate, Heather Blackburn, and her Visible@X team, together with the Antigonish Women’s Resource and Sexual Assault Center (AWRSAC) and the Women and Gender Studies Society.
Ms. Blackburn says she was pleased by the turnout.
“Take Back the Night is a powerfully moving event where survivors can really see and feel that they are not alone, that there are others in and around our community that are speaking out, that are showing up, and who are willing to walk with us as we work to create meaningful change.”
Dr. Nancy Forestell, StFX faculty and keynote speaker, shared her thoughts on the value of this event for participants. “When I attended my first march in Toronto … I was deeply moved, energized and politicized by the willingness of so many to draw attention to the pervasiveness of sexualized violence and to act in solidarity with one another. These marches, which I’ve attended virtually every year since have continued to serve that purpose for me and so many others – including scores of undergraduates here at StFX.”
Dr. Forestell went on to note the importance of societal advances concerning sexualized violence including sexual assault centres such as the Antigonish Women’s Centre, which offers professional staff with specialized training in trauma-informed physical and mental health care, the critical importance of comprehensive university sexualized violence prevention and response policies and procedures, educational programming on affirmative consent and pro-social bystander skills which aim to better equip students to advocate for themselves and for one another.
She noted the importance of the contributions of feminist scholars, which provides understanding of the underlying reasons for and consequences of gender-based and sexualized violence, the structural factors contributing to the greater vulnerability of particular populations of women and non-binary folks related to race, class, ability, sexuality, and gender diversity.
However, Dr. Forestell called for the ongoing need of university campuses to name and deal with ongoing sexism, misogyny that intersects with homophobia, transphobia and racism. Dr. Forestell concluded her remarks with a continued call for change. “We have to acknowledge that despite many significant changes that have been achieved, that the rate of sexual assault has not declined. Women and non-binary students are arguably not noticeably safer on university campuses than they were several generations ago when I was an undergraduate student. So now as never before I call on all of you to speak out, to educate others, and to be brave!”
Sid Van de Wiel, recent StFX graduate and the provincial Waves of Change coordinator with AWRSAC, introduced other speakers at the event including recent StFX graduate Addy Strickland, who shared words of advice and encouragement from her soon-to-be published compilation Writing Activism: Stories from the frontlines of campus activism against sexualized violence co-authored with fellow 2021 StFX graduate Emma Kuzmyk. Audra Jander, a fifth year StFX political science and history student, shared her perspective that “the responsibilities that I hold as a woman just to ensure that I am able to protect my myself and my friends put a weight on my shoulders that I should not have to carry.”
Ms. Jander called on society and institutions and males to act to take the weight of this responsibility and blame for sexualized violence from women.
StFX nursing student Claya Way Brackenbury (aka Piner) shared two songs with the crowd, who then marched through campus bearing signs with calls to action in changing a culture of sexualized violence.
Elizabeth Yeo, Vice President Students, thanks the AWRSAC, Heather Blackburn, and all speakers and volunteers who made the event possible. “The attendance at 2021 Take Back the Night is the highest yet in the history of this event on campus. This is a tribute to the tireless work of the many students, faculty and staff at StFX and the AWRSAC who are dedicated to changing the culture of sexualized violence.”