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A Tech Solution Designed with Survivors at its Centre: REES

An interview with Mary Lobson, Niko Coady and Nell Perry from REES (which stands for Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors), an accessible and secure online platform for reporting sexual violence, tailored to the unique setting of post-secondary institutions. Trauma-informed and centred on the needs of victim-survivors, REES bridges online incident reporting with access to critical information about reporting options, resources and support.

  • Mary Lobson, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the Founder of REES and an experienced changemaker in the gender-based violence field.

  • Niko Coady, based in Fredericton, New Brunswick at the time (now based in Montréal, Québec), is the Partner Success Coordinator at REES and student advocate.

  • Nell Perry, based in Victoria, British Columbia, was the Partnership Liaison of REES at the time of interviewing and student advocate.

Location: Zoom (Fredericton, Winnipeg, Victoria and Toronto in Canada!)

Niko, Camille, Mary and Nell are smiling on zoom.
Top row left to right: Niko Coady, Camille Schloeffel. Bottom row left to right: Mary Lobson and Nell Perry

The wonderful activist I met in Toronto, Micah Kalisch, connected me with REES as she was a member of their Youth Advisory Board at the time. How lucky I was to be able to make this connection, as I was blown away by the product and service that REES delivers across the university sector in Canada and the United States.

Around the time that the Hunting Ground came out, Mary Lobson reached out to its founders, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, to speak at a screening event in Winnipeg as part of her role in another organisation. When Lobson watched the screening and got to know Clark and Pino, this sparked something. It was hearing about the experiences of reporting sexual violence in universities that led Lobson to look into the path of reporting in Canada.

After looking into the lack of reporting options for students who are sexually assaulted at university, Lobson founded REES as a solution to reduce barriers to reporting within institutions (not just universities), increase pathways for support and to gather data to inform change. She did this by connecting to institutions in Manitoba to see if they were interested, and they all said yes. Now, the REES platform is being used across Canada and in some parts of the United States.

“It doesn't feel like an option to fail.”

- Mary Lobson

It was clear to me that Niko Coady, Nell Perry and Lobson are dedicated and proud of the product that REES provides and how they developed and delivered this product in a transformative survivor-centred way compared to other reporting platforms. The fact that they are a third-party provider means that they can work across multiple sectors to have the greatest impact possible.

The REES platform embeds anonymity, security, data selection transparency and access into its design. They developed it in consultation with victim-survivors, law enforcement, sexual assault nurses, police, administrators, legal experts and frontline workers, and this collaboration remains ongoing. This collaborative approach to working alongside community partners helps them to link victim-survivors who report through the platform to their support and report options in a seamless and informative way.

Because REES is led by people with expertise in addressing gender-based violence, it has embedded trauma-informed design to ensure it is easy to use. For example, when you make an account to use the platform, it saves progress on each page so that people can log out and back in. This allows people to tell their story in their own time and their own way, allowing them to re-enter the form through their account anytime.

“Institutions often take away power from survivors, whether it is intentional or not. So we intentionally give so much power back to the survivor.”

- Mary Lobson

A standout initiative of REES is their Youth Advisory Board, which comprises of students who are victim-survivors, advocates and activists. The Youth Advisory Board demonstrates their commitment to amplifying the voices of young people with different perspectives and opinions across the diverse landscape of Canada. REES also builds partnerships across the country so they can shape the platform to the unique context of each jurisdiction. This allows them to better meet the needs of each individual campus. Some universities already have policies or education programs in place, so they need less education from REES. For smaller campuses with less funding, the REES team goes in to educate staff on how to use REES and invest more time to build up their capacity. They seek to create continuity across people and spaces through reporting so that there is consistency across the country.

“At its core, REES is trauma-informed, survivor-centred and rooted in privacy and data security.”

- Nell Perry

The REES platform has adopted the language of mitigating risk and minimising harm, which more closely aligns with the needs and interests of institutions (making the platform more palatable and incentivising institutions to adopt it). REES’ ability to create a platform to meet the needs of institutions by being able to gather data to provide insights into where violence is happening and how, while also meeting the needs of victim-survivors and people who have experienced harm, is phenomenal.

Lobson, Coady and Perry took me through the platform in a demonstration. After being taken through, I can say with certainty that I believe in the power of REES to give victim-survivors the space to share their truths and feel in control of their narrative and next steps.

Some key features of REES that I noted:

  • When a perpetrator is named more than once, this creates a flag in the system.

  • It is customised to each specific campus community, with specific policy wording reflected.

  • It provides links to access bottom-up and top-down supports available on and off campus.

  • It securely stores records and provides options for report and support in a way that acknowledges the process is not linear.

  • At the front end, it outlines options available and makes clear any confidentiality limits.

  • People using the platform create an account so a username and password is used with no email or identifying factors required.

  • Following the creation of an account, it prompts users to create a passphrase to enter a record. This way, everything recorded is encrypted and no one can access it not even staff at REES. 

  • There is also a section where the user can journal their thoughts without needing to include it in the report if they send it off.

  • There is a chat feature for institutions to communicate with those who choose to remain anonymous. It helps bridge the gap for providing information and resources for those not ready to come forward.  

  • There is a back office with self-serve access by campuses to their anonymous reports and aggregated data.

  • Once a report is created, it can't be changed but information can be added.

The team flagged that more reports are being created on the REES platform than are being formally submitted through institutions directly  meaning people are creating a record and having it sit there. The most widely used option on the platform is the ‘anonymous report’ option, mostly because institutions do not offer this. Many students have said they wouldn’t come forward unless it was anonymous and through REES as a third party provider.

“The impact is in the conversations with people who weren’t really engaged with this material before I met them.”

- Niko Coady

Part of Coady's role is meeting with university staff and students to educate them about REES, gender-based violence in education and how to prevent it. In this way, REES is not only a platform for reporting when incidents occur, but also supports the institution to prevent these incidents from happening in the first place. Coady spoke about how powerful it is to see communities transform when REES comes into the picture.

“As [universities] start to engage with prevention materials that REES provides, it is so incredible to see the impact on them and it’s so rewarding.”

- Niko Coady

Since embedding REES across universities in Canada, they have now worked with Canadian football to bring REES to sporting organisations too. Lobson, Coady, Perry and their team have been able to create ripples of changes across spaces and with people who have never even talked or thought about the issue of sexual violence and reporting.

“The ability to connect with people who are typically not part of this issue and help them see the importance has come about their messages of ‘we really need to bring this issue out of the shadows and help people who have never come out to tell their stories’.”

- Nell Perry

I am so grateful to have connected with Lobson, Coady and Perry and we have since spoken about how to get REES to Australia. This service in a third-party is needed in the Australian university sector, but also across other institutional settings. REES is certainly a platform I put my full support in and know that if something similar was integrated across institutions in Australia that victim-survivors would have some of their power restored.

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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