Speaking of Women's Rights...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Empowering Survivors to Achieve Justice: Meet Legal Voice's Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup

An Interview with Olivia Ortiz

Like most nonprofit organizations, Legal Voice relies on the generosity and enthusiasm of our amazing volunteers. One way members of our community help advance our work is through our policy workgroups and committees, where volunteers give their time and expertise to advance the law, defend existing protections, and educate people in the Northwest about their rights.

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we asked a few questions of Olivia Ortiz from our Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup to learn more about the important work this group is doing. Read on!

Legal Voice: Who makes up the Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup, and what is the group's goal?

Olivia: The Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup is a diverse group of lawyers, students, advocates, and recent grads all working to one goal: empowering student survivors of sexual violence with knowledge of their rights. Sexual assault is devastating, and has a huge impact on access to education. When you're trying to balance school with just trying to survive, it is hard to know what to do, let alone figure out and research what long and confusing policy means. Survivors deserve an education and deserve justice, whatever that may mean to them, and we are here to help.

Legal Voice: How is the workgroup working toward this goal?

Olivia: Our group is creating an easy-to-access online Know Your Rights guide for students in each state of the Pacific Northwest to access in times of crisis. This guide breaks down state and federal laws in a way students can access and empower themselves in different scenarios following sexual assault. Whether that means preparing for a school hearing, going through the criminal process, or learning what accommodations are available for attending class, we've got you covered. We want this guide to be an intersectional one, including rights and concerns particular to undocumented students, LGBTQ students, disabled students, and students of color. We will release our Washington State guide soon, with guides for other Pacific Northwest states to come.

Legal Voice: Can you tell us about your background and what led you to join this workgroup?

Olivia: While I was in college, I noticed my university had sexual assault policies that were difficult to understand and that were not being enforced in the letter nor spirit of Title IX. I decided to take action and create a survivor advocacy group on campus. One of our very first projects was to create a similar resource guide for students on our campus, and we eventually pushed our administration to create a more streamlined process with an easy-to-understand website to go with it. When I heard that Legal Voice was doing a similar project for students in each state of the Pacific Northwest, I was excited to find another, similar way to continue my efforts after graduation. I am passionate about empowering survivors to achieve justice, and I firmly believe that being able to attend and fully participate in school can be one of those ways.

Legal Voice: Why do you think it is so hard to turn the tide on campus sexual assault?

Olivia: Sexual assault is a huge barrier to getting an education, and all students deserve to go to school where they can learn free from sexual violence. If a student survives sexual assault, schools must do their job to make sure that the survivor is still able to fully participate in classes, student jobs, extracurricular activities, and any other school-sponsored event. Much of the difficulty in turning the tide is the unwillingness to listen to what survivors need to feel able to access their education and then act upon it. Whether that be congresspeople introducing misguided bills forcing schools to report to the police, or schools not honoring survivors requests for accommodations or inclusion in influencing campus policy, survivors are often left unheard. In order to change our culture, we must meaningfully listen to survivors and ensure they are leading these efforts.

Legal Voice: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about sexual assault?
Olivia: Two of the greatest myths that I've encountered is that sexual assault doesn't happen at one's institution and that it does not happen frequently. Sexual assault affects people of all identities and particularly the most marginalized. Sexual assault happens at large institutions and small institutions, for-profit and non-profit, religious and non-denominational, and public and private. Although it is convenient to brush these things aside, we must accept this reality in order to change it.

Legal Voice: How can students help get the word out about the upcoming Know Your Rights guide?

Olivia: Our guide is a living document for students, and thus is very much open to student and survivor feedback. We want this guide to be a tool for students and it is really important that we tailor our guide for their interests and needs. And, of course, we could use student help publicizing the guide. We would love for students to bring us to their campus to discuss the guide, or have students reach out to their campus wellness centers or other important partners to distribute our guides.

If you are interested in bringing the Legal Voice Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup to your school or have ideas on how you can help promote the Know Your Rights guide, please contact us!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Interconnected Parts of Me: Deepening Intersectionality for Women’s Liberation

By Anonymous
Trigger warning: racism, sexual assault, child sexual assault

Every year around this time I get sick. I can’t sleep, my eating schedule is off, I am no longer in touch with my body, and I constantly feel vulnerable. This year, I was hoping that something would be different because a decade has passed. I thought that I could “celebrate” my growth and strength as a survivor of racialized sexual assault. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Sexual assault in the United States is far more common than most people realize. It happens in the workplace, with acquaintances, walking on the street, in the home, and everywhere one could imagine. Many women report feeling rape anxiety—a feeling of impending sexual assault—during normal daily activities. This invisible fear may become evident when a woman lashes out at a “hey beautiful” comment or unwanted physical contact, such as a stranger’s hand around her waist in a crowd.

Personally, I feel rape anxiety when I am around racists. Racism is a huge trigger for my anxiety because my sexual assault may have been racially motivated. I was raped by a racist who actively hated immigrants, people of different religions, and anyone non-white. No one can know if that is what caused him to take out his rage against me in such a dehumanizing way, but I suspect that motivated the attack.

Ten years later, I still feel sick when I hear “harmless” racist jokes because I never know if that racism could be directed at me in a dangerous way. I experience all the fears that white women do in public and walking down the street, but I also feel an added layer of fear because of my skin tone. Even though I’m a successful, independent adult, I am still acutely aware that I am no safer now than I was as a high school sophomore. The weight of this vulnerability is constant and deep.

Racialized sexual harassment and assault is common for women of color and is even more widespread for transgender women, gender nonconforming people, and disabled women of color. But why does it commonly go unaddressed when we talk about women’s issues? And why do some groups avoid it when they talk about systemic racism? Women’s rights organizations must fight for racial justice or acknowledge that they only fight for white women. As a woman of color, I see no compromise on this issue.

I admire Legal Voice greatly for their willingness and effort to change the conversation from sexual assault as imagined from a white perspective to a more comprehensive view of the issue. I’m glad that they have chosen to participate in the Black Lives Matter march this weekend, and that they are learning from people of color-led organizations. Unfortunately, they had to cancel the sign-making event for the Black Lives Matter march due to lack of interest. This was not the case with the sign-making event for the women’s march. My hope is that Legal Voice and their supporters will show up for communities of color with the same love and enthusiasm as they have shown other movements.

As someone who has suffered from both racism and sexual assault, both independently and together, I can say that I do not feel more connected to my gender identity than my racial identity. I feel them both as interconnected parts of me—the same applies to my queer identity and my multiple privileges. I experience the world as one human being who lives at the intersection of various identities.

Just because I am a minority* and a woman, does that mean my sexual assault does not matter because it was racially motivated? I hope you would say, “Of course not!” Then it should require no leap in logic to fight for people of color with the same enthusiasm that you fight for women’s rights. Each person with a marginalized identity has a window into others’ experiences with discrimination. While this does not mean they have a mirror into that discrimination, it should be enough to hold empathy for women of all races, abilities, religions, and citizenship status. Our experiences may not be the same, but our movements must be united.

* I am a racial minority in the United States. It is important to acknowledge that women of color are in the global majority.

Photo credit: Tachina Lee

Friday, March 31, 2017

Women Making History: Sojourner Truth

By Philip Bouie

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Sojourner Truth, abolitionist, feminist, evangelist and women’s rights activist, was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in upstate New York around the year 1797. Blessed with a powerful voice, inspired by religious conviction, and standing almost six-feet tall, Truth used an aggressive platform style of engaging her audiences that attributed to her personal charisma. Legend has it that Truth would bare her breasts before crude audiences who challenged her womanhood. Harriet Beecher Stowe once said that she had never met anyone who had more of a subtle and powerful presence than Sojourner Truth.

The state of New York began emancipating all slaves on July 4, 1827. However, Sojourner Truth didn’t wait for her freedom to be granted. In late 1826, Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia, while her other children stayed behind. After her escape, Truth learned that her five-year-old son Peter had been illegally sold to a man in Alabama. She eventually took the issue to court and won the case. The trial was one of the first cases in the United States in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a court of law.

In 1844, Truth joined forces with notable abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and David Ruggles at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The members of the Association lived together on 500 acres as a self-sufficient community and supported a broad agenda that also included women’s rights and pacifism. The Northampton community disbanded in 1846, but the legend of Sojourner Truth was just beginning.

In 1850 her memoirs were published under the title of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. William Lloyd Garrison wrote the book’s preface and Truth’s friend, Olive Gilbert, dictated her recollections because Truth could not read or write. After Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, she began touring the country, speaking to large audiences about slavery and human rights.

In May of 1851, Truth delivered her most famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, a speech that would later be known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The original version of the speech that was published in the Ohio newspaper The Anti-Slavery Bugle did not contain the phrase at all. The phrase would not appear in print until 12 years later, when a “southern-tinged” version of the speech was reprinted.

Truth toured Ohio from 1851 to 1853 and as her notoriety grew, the abolitionist movement grew with it. Even among fellow abolitionists, Truth’s positions were considered radical. Sojourner Truth was sagacious and outspoken, she sought political equality for all women and chastised the abolitionist community for not actively seeking civil rights for black women as well as men. Truth was also a staunch advocate for prison reform and the elimination of capital punishment. She eventually settled in Michigan where she would testify before the Michigan legislature as an opponent of capital punishment.

During the Civil War, Truth recruited troops for the Union Army, collected food and clothing for black regiments, and met with President Abraham Lincoln, who gave her permission to become a counselor at Freedman’s Village. After the Civil War, Truth immersed herself in securing land for ex-slaves during Reconstruction and dictated many letters, which would later provide pivotal details about Reconstruction.

Sojourner Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883. Embraced by a community of reformers including Amy Post, Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, her funeral and burial in Battle Creek was the largest the town had ever seen at the time. That her journey began as an 11-year-old slave who was sold for a flock of sheep and $100, and her life was commemorated with an unveiled statue at the U.S. Capitol in 2009, is a testament to her character and her place in the history of the United States. Sojourner Truth was the personified confluence of women’s rights, civil rights, prison reform, property rights, and universal suffrage. She is one of the most remarkable people this country has ever known.

Philip Bouie is the Development Officer for Legal Voice. He is steadfast in his commitment to women’s rights, marginalized communities and eating desert on a daily basis. He’s also black like Sojourner Truth.

Photo from Creative Commons.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Extraordinary Ordinary: One Korean 20th Century Life

By Janet Chung

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

You wouldn’t know it, to look at her. This tiny, wizened, polite lady, with age spots on her face and hands. She loved to dress in the fanciest suits for church, her size 5 feet clad in fine Italian leather. She ate slowly, precisely, like a bird, carefully selecting each bite with chopsticks. Unfailingly patient, she tended her African violets, turning snips from one plant into many more, until they covered nearly every windowsill.

You wouldn’t know that those hands had washed thousands of grains of rice. That those feet had walked hundreds of miles, from village to village, escaping encroaching Communist soldiers. That there were many days that a small bowl of rice was a blessing.

Born in 1910 in Japanese-occupied Korea, she probably could easily escape notice, as the second girl in a family with five children. Nothing in particular was expected of a girl in that time, in that place, but to get married. Maybe it was that ability to be hidden in plain sight that got her, at age 14, on a boat to Japan, determined to get an education.

Some dozen years later, she was a widow with a young daughter. Her husband’s family, in keeping with tradition, was obligated to provide for her. She could have spent her days among the other females in the family, consumed by the daily chores as part of a large multi-generational household. But she knew her daughter would be far down the pecking order among the many cousins when it came to resources.

So she worked, for pay, outside the home. This world was unknown to most of her women kinfolk, who rarely had occasion to leave the house or interact with strangers. The stories came out slowly over the years, the exact chronology uncertain. Your grandmother was a tutor to her brother’s children in Japan. She worked at a U.S. Army base, helping cook for the Korean workers. She was a telephone switchboard operator. She taught at a local school. She was secretary to the head of the largest hospital in Seoul. And somewhere in there, she managed to get a pig, fatten it up, and sell it for extra income.

Slowly, slowly, she squirreled away her paychecks so that she could send her only daughter to school – so she would have more opportunity than what her gender and her fatherless state would otherwise have allowed.

There were no stories about my grandmother in a dramatic moment – fighting off an attacker, giving a rousing speech, or even having a confrontation. I can’t remember a time when she so much as raised her voice or had an argument.

So this isn’t a story about your typical heroine. No one will ever make a movie about my grandmother. In point of fact, Eun Soon Lee was quite ordinary. But the life she led was also extraordinary. There are probably many like her, now, then, throughout history: each life unique in its details, but sharing the plot line of survival.

Eun Soon Lee with Janet's son (2001).
There is an aspect of the Korean character, a cultural and psychological characteristic widely accepted as central to “Korean-ness,” called han. Described as “a national torch, a badge of suffering tempered by a sense of resiliency,” han manifests itself at the social and national level, as well as the personal. It is a deeply felt sense that some injustice has been wrought. On the one hand, it is a “mixture of angst, endurance and a yearning for revenge,” yet also, “a sense of hope, an ability to silently endure hardship and suffering.” Han is also the name of a major river flowing through Seoul that has played a major role in Korean history.

My grandmother’s life was replete with this Korean essence, this han. She didn’t choose the circumstances that befell her – born into an occupied state, subjected to early widowhood, living through two wars resulting from forces well beyond her control. Yet she retained agency over her own life and, like a river, created a path that moved inexorably forward. That backbone, erect as ever, even well into her 90s, must have been forged of pure steel – strong, yet tempered by resiliency. Han.

Janet Chung is Legal & Legislative Counsel for Legal Voice. She did not inherit her grandmother's green thumb, but tries to channel her work ethic and steady persistence. She is passionate about removing barriers to opportunities for women through her advocacy for health care access and employment justice.

Photos courtesy of Janet Chung.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Women Making History: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

By Sara Ainsworth

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, born in 1862, was an activist, teacher, and writer who, despite death threats and the destruction of her self-built newspaper, never stopped demanding an end to racial injustice. She was one of the leading voices in exposing the terrorism that white people inflicted on Black families through lynching, threats, and Jim Crow laws.

At a time when women editors, journalists, and newspaper owners were rare, she was all three. After publishing an exposĂ© of the lynching of her friends, white mobs destroyed her newspaper and threatened her life.  She fled to England, where she continued to campaign against lynching. She gathered extensive evidence of the lynching of Black Southerners, and authored and published a widely-distributed pamphlet, “Southern Horrors.”

After returning to the U.S., she helped organize the National Association of Colored Women, and was one of two women who helped found the NAACP. She died in Chicago in 1931.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett contributed greatly to the future civil rights movement, to the end of Jim Crow laws, and to the movement to end lynching. Yet Black families continue today to experience threats, struggle, and violence—whether state-sanctioned or from individuals. Modern voices that echo Ida B. Wells-Barnett are critical.

Thankfully, the amazing leaders at Forward Together have provided a platform and a place of activism for the modern “Idas.” You can find their brilliant analysis on topics ranging from reproductive justice to the 2016 election to criminalization and public policy at Echoing Ida. Here, Black women writers and leaders in reproductive and racial justice provide insight, analysis, and brilliant writing on issues affecting Black women and LGBTQ people and their communities right now—and they publish that work in media outlets all around the country. As they explain, they are, like their namesake, “truthtellers.”

Women who have made history influence women who will make history, and Ida is surely no exception. I encourage you to read from Echoing Ida's ever-growing body of work, and support the women who are continuing Ida's legacy of justice.

As Advocacy Director for Legal Voice, Sara Ainsworth is committed to reproductive and racial justice, and to honoring and following the leadership of people of color. She is a huge fan of the Idas and jumped at this chance to promote their work.

Photo of Ida B. Wells-Barnett from Wikimedia Commons.