Passion from Pain

By Rob McPhee

TRIGGER WARNING

Before I begin this episode of “A Place For Passion”, you need to know that this episode will focusing on a group who aids survivors of sexual assault, and as a result may be upsetting to some listeners. If you find this subject matter upsetting, please pause this episode and go listen to another fantastic From Scratch Media Podcast. With that said, let us begin.

SEGMENT 1

I want you to take a moment, and consider the number three. Because in Canada, one in three women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. One in three is also the amount of canadians who have a working understanding of sexual consent. And of every one thousand sexual assaults in Canada, only 3 assailants will be convicted of their crime(SACHA). My name is Rob McPhee, and today I’m going to be talking to you about a group of volunteers who work out of York University’s Keele Campus. A group who endeavour every day to help change those statistics for the better, and often, to try and prevent people from experiencing horror’s that they themselves were subjected to. On this episode of “A Place for Passion”  entitled “Passion from Pain”, I will be discussing SASSL. The Sexual Assault Survivors Support Line, and all of the amazing work they do

Now before I dive into the truly fantastic work SASSL does, I want to make the stakes that are being dealt with absolutely clear. Sexual assault exists on every single University and College campus in Canada and the United States. In Canada, one in five women experience sexual assault while attending a postsecondary institution. On a broader, societal scale, we’re still grappling with the Brock Turner case and it’s appalling outcome. And specifically to York, the Mandi Grey rape case(Porter, Catherine) is still very much at the forefront of the conversation, especially as York reviews its sexual assault policy. The stakes could not be higher, as the rate of sexual assault at postsecondary institutions is disgracefully high(Canadian Federation of Students). With that in mind, let us dive into SASSL and the remarkable efforts they make every day.

SEGMENT 2

It’s genuinely a pleasure and  a source of great pride for me to talk about SASSL, for a number of reasons. SASSL has been operating since 1995, out of York University’s Keele Campus(sassl.info.yorku.ca). I’m truly am proud of York for, and this community for recognizing the need for a group like SASSL. With York University often stigmatized, as being one of the less safe campuses in Canada, and that is an unfair stigmatization i might add. So to know that they took this step in 1995 is something I'm incredibly proud of. I’ll also add that York is dropping the ball with SASSL of late in my opinion, but I’ll get to that soon enough.

SASSL is a peer to peer run group, which means it is staffed by students, to primarily help students. However they do not turn anybody away. Their survivor support line operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they take calls from survivors and those in crisis from all over North America. These are volunteers remember, volunteers who are  often survivors of sexual violence themselves. The strength of these volunteers display every day is truly commendable, and their selflessness is truly enviable. Shortly you’ll hear part of a fantastic conversation I had with a woman who has volunteered for SASSL, among a number of other groups involved with sexual health and education. She’s a woman whom I’ve known for years, and whose opinion I could not hold in higher regard on this matter, and I think you’ll find what she has to say about SASSL and their work and the obstacles they facing, not only compelling, but important.

On top of their support line that operates around the clock, SASSL also has walk in hours  at their office on the 4th Floor of the Student Centre, Room B449. At the risk of being repetitive, I really want to stress to you all that these are all students. They have classes, tests, assignments. They have stresses at home, and they have jobs. These volunteers, on top of all of that stress, choose to make themselves available for those in crisis. For those needing guidance, wanting to be educated, and wanting to educate others. They do all this, and in my experience almost nobody on campus is aware of them.  In fact in preparation for this podcast, I talked to a number of York community members about SASSL. They were diverse in age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender identification, in fact the only thing they had in common was not a single one of them knew about SASSL before I mentioned it to them. And all of them immediately recognized the need and value such a group offered, and were left wondering why they hadn’t heard about them. And to me that is, saddening. Because I truly believe the work that SASSL does, on a human level, is deserving of the highest respect. With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to Sarah Simpson.

SEGMENT 3

    Sarah is a 24 year old graduate of York University. She has a bachelors with specialized honours in sexuality studies. Previously she has volunteered with Health Education & Promotion at York with both the Peer Sexual Health Outreach Project as well as the Alcohol & Other Drugs team. Currently she employed with York Security Services through the GoSafe program, as well as its Lost and Found and CCTV departments. She’s also affiliated with Centre for Human Rights as an Active Bystander Training Facilitator. But most importantly to this podcast, she is a SASSL volunteer. Last year Sarah was an internal outreach volunteer with SASSL and this year she is volunteering under the training and office coordinator where she is helping to plan "peer support circles" for survivors of sexual assault, which she informs me will be running during the winter term at York. Sarah’s resume is nothing short of impressive, especially when you consider she will be turning 25 this month. And I’m incredibly grateful that she was able to sit down with me for half an hour and discuss the work that SASSL is doing. And I’ll tell you right now, near the end of our conversation I had a revelation about my own perspective on the matter that, that evoked a surprising amount of disappointment in myself. First though I asked Sarah why she thought so few community members knew about SASSL, and her answer should illuminate a lot of the obstacles that this group is facing today. I also need to make it clear that Sarah’s opinions are just that, her opinions. They do not represent SASSL or any of her other affiliations. With that being said…

RM: What do you think are contributing factors to SASSL not being so well known by community members on York’s campus.

SARAH: I think there’s a lot to that question. So everyone who works there is a student. A lot of the times they’re very ambitious students. They have a lot that they’re involved in because they have high hopes for what they want to do later in life. So that busyness makes it hard to get everything done within the SASSL organization itself. As well, this year especially, were dealing with a referendum. So we’re really trying to make sure we can continue to get all the funding that we need. So unfortunately in order to get the funding that we need, we have to a lot of promotion and work to actually get that money. So that means we’re unable to run the same amount of services or the same amount of commitment to those events that we’d normally like to do because we’re trying to make sure that York gives us the funding that we can actually use to run as a service.

RM: Could you just elaborate on the major points of that referendum and how it's directly affecting the funding?

SARAH: I can try. So basically, i think it's every four years, but don’t quote me on that. Basically all the different community organizations at York, so places like TBL gay and centre for women and trans folks, and a few other, they’re not student clubs they’re actually student community organizations and SASSL is one of those. They don’t just get funding given to them. They have to how that there’s an actual community need for the organization that they're running. So in showing the ways that survivors and the other folks within the York community use SASSL, then they’ll get the money that they need to continue running.

RM: I’m going to pause the tape there for a moment, because this is something that I was unaware of before the interview and honestly it pisses me off. Obviously there’s a finite amount of money available to support these groups. But the idea that SASSL, an already underfunded, under utilized and massively important group in combating that which, personally I would consider an epidemic on campuses, has to prove its value every couple of years, is infuriating. It’s detestable. Groups who offer services like this should have a blank cheque written every September in an ideal world. Obviously this isn’t practical. But are you serious? You need to SASSL to prove their value? Hundreds of thousands of Canadian women every year are assaulted and suffer alone in silence, and we’re over here debating how many pennies on the dollar these volunteers should get to help these people. Meanwhile the President and Vice Chancellor of York Mamdouh Shoukri made $463,105.00 in 2015(YorkU). Nearly half a million dollars. But ya, SASSL needs to prove its value in order to get the financial scraps to help survivors in need. It’s disgusting.

SEGMENT 4

RM:Now unfortunately I won’t be able to play you the entirety of my conversation with Sarah, but we will come back to it in a moment. First though I want to talk about what steps we should be taking in trying to combat the rate of sexual assault and sexual violence on campus, specifically York’s campus. I’m going to play you a clip in a moment where Sarah discusses the need for empowerment, and education and active bystanders, to combat sexual assault. And as Sarah is speaking, I want you to think about ways in which we could expand on those concepts, and then I’ll tell you how I thought we should approach it. So here’s Sarah discussing those concepts that SASSL feels are key to combatting sexual assault.

RM: Would you say then, that education in communities that do not have it would be a large part of curbing the trend of sexual violence?

SARAH: So ya, I think giving survivors support, and actually making sure communities know that people care for survivors and believe them and having that known is very important. And of course I work a lot in education as well, working in health education and promotion. So I think education is a huge part of that as well, and another thing the university has started doing is active bystander training. Which is actually for secxual violence prevention, which involves another body of people. Not just survivors or perpetrators but everyday people who are living their lives, and are very easily seeing these things occur or about to occur. And it's trying to get those folks involved to, and not being idle bystanders but active bystanders. And obviously education and training is really important part of that. Making people feel empowered enough to get involved and help people.

RM: So here’s where I’m going to break the 4th wall for a moment, and address something in how I framed my questions for Sarah. I want you to listen to me asking Sarah that question again, and see if you can pinpoint where i try to set up the question I want to ask Sarah next.

RM: Would you say then, that education in communities that do not have it would be a large part of curbing the trend of sexual violence?

“Education in communities that do not have it…” That is me attempting to start a discussion about the communities that exist on the periphery of York’s Keele campus. Namely the Jane and Finch & Driftwood areas. Areas known for having a high crime rate (McKnight, Zoe), for every once in a while spilling onto campus and for lack of a better phrase, disturbing the peace. Now immediately following the response from Sarah you just heard, I raised this question directly. Should York be looking into extending SASSL’s efforts into empowering and educating these communities on its campuses border? Now I’m not going to play it for you because Sarah responded to my question with a question and it flustered me as I wasn’t expecting it. I started to trip over my words. I will however, play you Sarah’s response to my question when I eventually got it out in a framework that she was able to work within. But before I do, a few minutes ago I said that this interview left me disappointed with myself, and it is Sarah’s answer to this question that made me feel that way. I’ll explain why in a moment. First though, here’s Sarah’s response.

RM: Do you think it would be wise of York to show some forethought in that matter, and start reaching into communities on its border which are known to come onto campus and commit crimes. Would it wise to educate, and raise awareness for things like being an active bystander?

SARAH: I think everyone could use that type of education. I think you really need to be careful of the narrative of on campus york and outsider community because honestly there's a lot of really negative stereotypes that are put forward with the jane and finch community. They are racialized, most often  immigrant, impoverished communities. And they're not criminals but often times are criminalized. Another thing to keep in mind, i think anyone could use active bystander training, but in terms of who's actually perpetrating sexual violence, most often survivors know who is the perpetrator. It's a friend, an uncle, maybe someone they're just going on a date with, but it's not a stranger. Those are actually very small percentages of sexual assaults that do occur.    

SEGMENT 5

RM:Now my plan for this podcast was to focus on that community outreach idea. I was prepping a lot research on Northrop Frye’s “Garrison Theory”, journal articles on how architecture and the layout of campus could be impacting these communities around it for the worse. Idea’s that may still have value, I might add. However in this context, the context of aiding survivors of sexual assault I failed and i failed miserably, as I became exactly that which I detest. I took on the role of  a straight white, very privileged man blaming communities of visible minorities and immigrants for crimes that they didn’t do. I went into this completely prepared to propagate ignorant, racist narratives. And I was completely oblivious to the fact I was doing it, and well after I did it. I sought an academic answer to what is after all, a human problem. What I should have been doing all along is what Sarah told me in the interview I should have been doing. Listening. Empathizing.

SARAH: The biggest thing is understanding your role. So you're into a councilor, you have limits, there's only so much you can do in terms of supporting survivors. Being a survivor myself, I think the first and foremost thing is taking time to listen. Letting them know you’re a safe person to have this discussion with, that they can actually trust you with this information and that you believe them. Even if you think there's holes in their story or there's thing you think they should have done differently to avoid what happening to them. You believe them and you’re sorry that this happened to them. And often that can come off as being insincere because it is this sort of blanket statement. But showing that you do genuinely care and creating space and time to actually show that.

RM: I don’t know how to stop sexual assault on university campuses. I tried to come up with some ideas, some of them i thought were good idea, but I've explained to you why that isn't the case. The fact of the matter is this, 80% of sexual assault survivors will know their assaulter(SACHA). You heard Sarah say it; it’s a friend, an uncle. This is after all a human problem, not an academic one. And therefore the solution has to be human. It lies with all of us. And it seems to me that that solution is embodying the qualities that the volunteers at SASSL embody every day. Selflessness, trust, empathy. A willingness to listen, to be an ally, and to be an active bystander instead of a passive bystander. To intervene. That is what we need now more than ever, and it is going to be my mission every day from here on out to embody those qualities. I hope you’ll join me in that. On that note, I am out of time. I sincerely hope you can all learn from my ignorance, I know I’m going to. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t listen to what the problem is, and that knowledge only exists within those who have lived it. I’d once again like to thank Sarah Simpson, and all of her contributions to this podcast episode. aFor “From Scratch Media”, I’ve been Rob McPhee and this has been “A Place for Passion”. Thank you for listening.

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