Culture & Conversation Violence

Survivor-Activists Ask Colleges to #JustSaySorry

Katie Klabusich

#JustSaySorry is calling on current and prospective students as well as alumni to post on social media that they will withhold donations until those institutions do the bare minimum: “Issue an acknowledgment and apology to students who feel or have felt less valued and less safe because of the way they’ve responded to campus sexual assault.”

A survivor-led and -centered anti-sexual violence campaign kicks off Monday as the organizers and participants ask college and university administrations to #JustSaySorry for failing to protect their students.

Kamilah Willingham and Wagatwe Wanjuki, co-founders of Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture (SERC), launched #JustSaySorry as a way to call out administrations that often technically have policies in place to address sexual assault, but in reality hinder survivors’ healing by never fully (or even partially) accepting blame for their part. Survivors often receive a monthly reminder of that betrayal in the mail or via email, in the form of a student loan bill or school donation request. (Full disclosure: I recently launched a project on which Wanjuki is participating, unrelated to this campaign.)

According to the campaign press release, #JustSaySorry is calling on current and prospective students as well as alumni to post on social media that they will withhold donations until those institutions do the bare minimum: “Issue an acknowledgment and apology to students who feel or have felt less valued and less safe because of the way they’ve responded to campus sexual assault.”

“We want to educate the world about the power of apology and just how deep institutional betrayal hurts us,” Wanjuki told Rewire. “It will also show the true motivations of schools—do they care that survivors are carrying the weight of the harm they caused? Or were we just a number to them, despite what they claim in brochures attracting new students, wooing parents, and soliciting donations? No matter the outcome of the campaign, the true colors of schools will be revealed.”

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The campaign ignited with a Facebook livestream of Wanjuki setting literal fire to an item from Tufts University—the school that used a sudden drop in her GPA due to the trauma she experienced following her assault to expel her rather than support her after she reported her rapist. Six years after her Title IX complaint was filed, Tufts was found in violation of the federal gender parity in education statute for its mishandling of her case. Yet, the university continues to be silent on culpability, fueling ongoing trauma for Wanjuki. She’s set to burn as much Tufts gear as necessary to get its attention and solicit at least an apology.

“Schools have so much power over the course of our lives. When they refuse to support the most vulnerable in our society, they are not being the beacons of knowledge and nurturing that they claim to be. They are merely reinforcing the harms and inequalities that plague our communities,” Wanjuki told Rewire.

Willingham’s story was one of those chronicled in the powerful documentary The Hunting Ground. Still, Harvard’s administration continues to add insult to injury, so she has publicly called it out by name.

“Harvard Law already knew they were violating Title IX when I filed a complaint against them. And when they were eventually found in violation, they were forced to change the procedures through which they readmitted my assailant,” said Willingham.

For her, #JustSaySorry is a “common sense” campaign born out of the repeated disappointments that she and Wanjuki have experienced.

“My rapist just graduated while 19 of my former professors very publicly retaliated against me for speaking out,” she explained.

Willingham acknowledges that there’s no “easy fix” for that trauma, but every healing process needs a first step. She says the campaign will give survivors and allies a way to express their expectations while impressing upon administrations how hurt survivors are when their schools don’t respond appropriately or supportively.

While she concedes it’s possible that administrations who think they’re just protecting their schools might not realize they’ve done anything wrong, Willingham isn’t absolving them.

“Maybe there simply hasn’t been enough incentive for them to apologize,” Willingham said. “They don’t apologize for or acknowledge past failures, but we’re supposed to trust that they’re devoted to changing the administrative culture that has failed and hurt students survivors for so long? Nah. Sounds like institutional gaslighting to me. And gaslighting is an effective way to maintain control over the status quo in unbalanced relationships—which makes me think that schools won’t apologize as long as they think they can get away with it.”

Anyone and everyone is encouraged to participate using the hashtag, watch for on-fire livestreams, pledge a university-related item burning, publicly tell your school that you are diverting donations to #JustSaySorry until they apologize, and stay connected with the campaign for other actions and survivor stories. Survivors and allies will be encouraged to share their stories and create calls to action as the campaign evolves and picks up steam.

“I want to highlight and center the stories of the people who are largely overlooked by the media and society as a whole: the survivors of color, gender-nonconforming survivors, poor survivors, immigrant survivors, the ones who had to drop out of school, and the ones who have a low GPA,” Wanjuki told Rewire.

Both women know from their work on campuses nationwide that apologies have power. So many survivors fall through the cracks, so few administrations do the simplest thing to temper their trauma: apologize.

“I know it would mean the world to me if Tufts just acknowledged that I—someone they were supposed to have nurtured academically—felt discarded and betrayed,” said Wanjuki.

Willingham said she reported her assault because she had faith in the administration at Harvard—that with her assailant’s partial confession in writing it would be a straightforward process resulting in justice.

“Wagatwe and I are both very hurt by and very angry at our alma maters—and still struggling to heal from the trauma of sexual assault that was compounded and extended by institutional betrayal,” she said. “There’s no easy fix for that, but an apology would feel so nice. An apology might help relieve me of the burden of wanting to set fire to every student loan bill or fundraising mailer I get from my school.”

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