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Black students need separate spaces to adequately address sexual violence on campus

By Afua Mfodwo

In the fall of 2019, Casandra Fullwood sat with a group of about 20 students at Ryerson inside the Black Liberation Collective’s office for a closed session for Black survivors of sexual violence.

Pressing play on an episode of Black Girl In Om, a wellness podcast for Black women, the group created collages and paintings to define what safety and wellness means to them.

This was the first session of We Heal Together, a safe space for Black students to discuss sexual violence on campus, in partnership with the Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education. Although it officially started in 2019, We Heal Together was a number of years in the making, said Fullwood. 

After working in various feminist spaces at Ryerson, the fourth-year arts and contemporary studies student noticed how Black survivors of sexual violence often felt uncomfortable in traditional survivor spaces. She founded We Heal Together as an alternative healing space to address the unique issues that sexual violence survivors who are Black face on campus.

“I realized there’s different context to Black people who are experiencing sexual assault or even family sexual trauma because of historical context, colonialism, slavery,” said Fullwood. “There are so many added factors that aren’t being met in general survivor spaces.”

Black survivors may feel reluctant to share details of their sexual trauma in white-led survivor spaces because they don’t want to reinforce negative stereotypes about their community like hypersexualization, Fullwood said. 

“A lot of healing spaces or survivor-led spaces are very white-centric. You can feel like your voice doesn’t matter in these spaces or you are projecting ideas about your community as well because of stereotypes,” she said. 

Community healing in Black spaces makes it easier for survivors to speak, she added.

We Heal Together holds sessions once a month where community members get together in support group sessions. Each meeting focuses on alternative methods for community healing to address sexual violence.  

“A lot of healing spaces or survivor-led spaces are very white-centric, and you can feel like your voice doesn’t matter in these spaces”

Last month, Fullwood participated in a Consent Comes First student panel discussing the sexual violence that Black students face on university campuses. The panel stressed the need for universities to create a seperate safe space for Black students to address their unique experiences with sexual violence. 

“There is a lack of awareness around the hypersexualization of Black bodies and Black survivor methods,” said Fullwood during the panel. She added that given a history of harm from police against Black communities, there’s a need for alternative healing methods on campuses that do not involve police.

Fullwood said she hopes to provide that space “to have deeper conversations about bodily safety” through We Heal Together.

Chloe Kemeni, a first-year law student at McGill University who was also on the panel, said Black students who are survivors of sexual assault are faced with various intersections of marginalization. During her time as an undergraduate student at McGill, Kemeni worked to make the university’s policies addressing sexual violence more survivor-focused. 

“For me, I think understanding how consent plays out on campus for Black students is understanding that you are facing institutional violence, and then you are also facing sexual violence or racial violence,” she said. 

George Dei, a professor of critical race and anti-racism studies and Indigeneity at the University of Toronto, said universities need to acknowledge the connection colonialism and racism has with sexual violence to address it properly.

“Black bodies always have to resist…delegitimization, the invalidation and the discrediting of our voices, our experiences, and history,” he said. 

Dei said universities are still struggling to fully acknowledge and address these different experiences. The impact of violence on Black, racialized and Indigenous students is something universities struggle with but need to fully understand, he added. 

Establishing a trauma-informed approach

A 2019 report released by Courage to Act, a project that addresses gender-based violence in Canadian post-secondary institutions, said there must be greater emphasis on including trauma-informed policies in universities. 

“A trauma-informed approach recognizes that students, staff, and faculty can come to post-secondary institutions with their own traumas, including intergenerational histories of gender-based violence, and intends to alleviate, not exacerbate these traumas,” the report read.

To make sexual violence policies for Black students more trauma informed, Meseret Haileyesus, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment, said universities should consider granting anonymity to survivors when they report.

“One of the most fundamental points in trauma-informed services is confidentiality. If you want to have safe spaces for women you need to build an environment that trusts women,” she said. 

Haileyesus also recommended that universities provide scholarships to survivors who might also be facing economic abuse. For survivors who may be victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, this would help provide financial support separate from these circumstances. 

Intersectionality in hiring practices 

In making sure survivors on campus are supported, it also important for universities to ensure they hire more Black staff to support students.  

“I think that Black students can be supported in universities, particularly survivors of sexual violence and gender-based violence, by being able to seek support from a Black person, and a Black person that understands intersectionality,” said Samantha Peters, a lawyer based in Toronto and the director of legal initiatives and public interest at Black Femme Legal. 

Peters emphasized that it’s important that students are not just offered support at universities but also supports that exist outside the university, especially if the assault happens on campus.

“It’s important to recognize that universities can be sites of harm so instead of making it mandatory for students to seek support through universities, point to options outside of the university so that Black survivors of sexual violence are aware of their options,” Peters said in a follow-up email.

These outside options should be trauma-informed, survivor-centred and not rely on the state or other systems or institutions that have harmed Black communities, they added.

Peters said another way for universities to improve support for Black students facing sexual violence is to partner with community-led organizations and leaders who are already doing this work. In Toronto, organizations like Black Women In Motion support and empower Black survivors of sexual violence. 

Fullwood hopes to continue validating Black survivors’ experiences with the work she does. During the time that she’s spent working with survivors of sexual violence, she’s noticed that Black survivors of sexual violence are often treated without urgency and kindness. These are issues she refuses to ignore with We Heal Together.   

“I can’t ignore it, because it’s a part of me too. It’s an extension of my experience,” said Fullwood.  

“That’s why I care. When it comes to Black people and Black women, if we don’t care about each other, no one else is going to care about us.” 

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to better contextualize why universities should connect survivors to outside supports, not just university services. The Eyeopener regrets this error.

Community members who are affected by this story and/or in need of support can contact the following resources: 

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