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Activism to Institutionalised Prevention: University of Michigan

Two interviews at the University of Michigan:

  1. Anne Huhman, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC).

  2. Kaaren Williamsen, Director of the Prevention, Education, Assistance and Resources (PEAR) unit (and former Director of SAPAC).


Location: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA


Camille and Anne are standing smiling in front of a sign that reads: SAPAC Sexual assault prevention and awareness center
Left to right: Camille Schloeffel and Anne Huhman in the SAPAC office
Kaaren and Camille standing smiling in front of a brick wall in the SAPAC office
Left to right: Kaaren Williamsen and Camille Schloeffel in the SAPAC office

On 7 October 2022, I had the privilege of meeting two leaders of prevention and response to sexual violence on campus at the University of Michigan (UMich), Anne Huhman and Kaaren Williamsen. My discussions with Williamsen and Huhman made me realise that the poor responses to sexual violence in Australia can be reformed, and that there is best practice work to build cultures of safety and support on campuses that we can learn from.


SAPAC: The Result of Student Activism

Williamsen was the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) until recently when she took on the new role of establishing the staff-specific Prevention, Education, Assistance and Resources (PEAR) unit. Now, Huhman is the Director of SAPAC and has worked there in various roles for more than 17 years. The organisation grew out of student activism and has remained an integral service to students on campus since its beginnings. In 1986, students saw a need for a rape crisis centre on campus due to high rates of on-campus violence. They organised a day-long sit-in protest at the Office of the Vice President of Student Life and successfully negotiated with the University Administration to allocate $75,000 to establish SAPAC. The service was initially staffed with only one Director and one student-staff member. Now, SAPAC has more than 35 years of experience as a result of student activism and community organising to pressure the university to invest in prevention, with more than 15 permanent staff, 30 student-staff and 150 volunteers each year. SAPAC continues to be led by students and experts with a robust evidence-base and practical experiences in the field.


Huhman has loved every minute of her 17 years working at SAPAC. During her time, she successfully received a grant from the US Department of Justice (through their Campus Sexual Violence Grant Program) to bring together stakeholders from across all sectors in the community to develop a coordinated response to the issue of on-campus sexual violence. This collaborative approach allowed university stakeholders to see the value of SAPAC’s work and for the service to be incorporated formally into institutional processes. In contrast to typical university responses which view sexual violence crisis response as an isolated issue that holds stigma and shame for students who might need to access it. 


SAPAC in Action: Comprehensive Prevention and Response

We have to have meaningful in-person engagement with students. It's not good enough to say ‘university is too late’.

- Anne Huhman


Genuine student engagement in sexual violence prevention is key to cultural change and so getting a diverse and comprehensive group of representatives to the table is one of SAPAC’s key focuses. Huhman and I discussed how we learn a lot about preventing sexual violence through community organising and bringing people together to talk openly about these issues. Huhman’s philosophy is that their work would be ineffective if they didn’t uplift students and provide spaces for them to give their lived experiences and feedback to inform the work.


SAPAC has five student volunteer programs. These volunteer programs provide extensive training opportunities to more than 150 student volunteers each year. On top of this, SAPAC's paid student-staff members are provided a yearly budget from the university to achieve their goals, with support from professional staff and volunteers to deliver engaging prevention programs and events.


Alongside embedding social work and community organising principles to the work, SAPAC also uses the public health model of ‘primary, secondary and tertiary prevention’ to underpin their work.

  1. Primary Prevention. Facilitating outreach activities, education and peer-to-peer workshops.

  2. Secondary Prevention. Minimising the impact of harm through programs like bystander intervention training, where students are taught how to intervene when they witness harmful behaviour.

  3. Tertiary Prevention. Supporting victim-survivors after harm has occurred, such as by supporting people to speak their truths and supporting allies to show up.


Notably, all programs across the levels of prevention are delivered in peer-to-peer formats with support from professional staff.


1. Prevention

SAPAC provides prevention education for students across campus and confidential services for everyone in the community. They approach their work through an understanding that people empower themselves and should make their own decisions about their next steps. SAPAC’s role is to provide confidential advocates for people who use their service, to present information and provide support and trust. They supplement this support work with comprehensive training programs available across all parts of the campus, with a goal to increase understanding of violence on campus and prevent it from happening in the first place. The space itself is very welcoming, warm and central on campus.


SAPAC's education and training program provides an information loop to everyone on campus in a way that is tailored to their specific roles in the campus community. This approach ensures all professionals in the university system are educated on sexual violence as well as helping them to understand what is supportive to people who have experienced harm. Through their tailored approach, SAPAC ensures that all their work is relevant to the people it is serving and provides them with the specific knowledge, tools and strategies to put their learning into practice if an incident or disclosure occurs. 


SAPAC runs various peer-led prevention programs that are tailored to different student cohorts or settings: 

  • Graduate Research, Outreach, Workshops, and Evaluation (GROWE) - workshops specific to graduate students focused on connecting research to practice.

  • Michigan Men - a program designed to engage men in the work with a focus on healthy masculinity.

  • Raise The Bar - a program that teaches bar staff (servers, bouncers, bartenders) about their role in bystander intervention and equipping them to know how to intervene.

  • Survivor Empowerment and Ally Support (SEAS) - events where victim-survivors and their supporters can come together to share their stories without judgement. Survivors and supporters are invited to join in a comfortable, warm and safe environment. They also provide an option for people to remain anonymous and to have a SAPAC staff/student read their story on their behalf. Alongside storytelling, they provide space where people can share affirmations to victim-survivors.


Pin board with bird artwork and affirmations pinned on the board
Affirmations to victim-survivors in the SAPAC office

SAPAC’s lived experience event for victim-survivor sharing is celebrated by the community and attended widely. I am in AWE of this, as my experience in Australia has been that universities actively seek to silence and punish victim-survivors for speaking out.


2. Support
You know when you do prevention you'll be doing support.

- Kaaren Williamsen


In the same way they have various prevention programs, SAPAC also runs various peer-led support groups that are tailored to experiences and identity groups. These include:

  • Students of Colour Survivors

  • LGBTQIA+ Survivors


Each of these support groups are led by two paid student-staff with a professional staff supervisor. They develop a weekly supervision plan for the group, debrief and also have a focus on professional development. Huhman emphasised the importance of ensuring SAPAC’s initiatives are student-led, as she sees it as important to hold onto the spirit of the organisation as being started by students by empowering students along the way.


3. Response
We walk alongside survivors as they navigate the systems.

- Kaaren Williamsen


SAPAC also employs three graduate student interns (who generally study social work) to do similar work as a SAPAC case manager, although with extra training and support. SAPAC’s role is to provide confidential advocates for people who use their service, to present information and provide support and trust. Alongside this individual support work, SAPAC runs a 24/7 crisis line available to support people after an experience of sexual violence, including during their hospital visits.


SAPAC workers do not tell victim-survivors what to do, but provide them with options. Huhman emphasised that young people are equally critical partners in the work. Social work offers a similar lens that all partners bring equal value, regardless of their positionality.

We are community organisers, not attorneys.

- Kaaren Williamsen


There is a menu of options available to people following an experience of sexual violence, inclusive of an investigation process (civil) or mediation process (restorative). Responses also include the option to remain anonymous, however noting that anonymous reporting limits the outcomes that can be achieved by the university. Anonymous options are important, but there must also be work to ensure that people feel able to report their experiences on their own terms and without fear of judgement or retaliation, with their name attached so they can be provided the best support.


Although not every sexual assault is a health issue, it is important that healthcare is readily available to support people who experience sexual violence. UMich provides a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) health service on campus, which means that students don't need to go to the emergency department to receive care after assault.


Most universities I visited in the US did not have teams dedicated to addressing sexual violence in a multifaceted and comprehensive way like UMich. Rather, they would usually have one or two Title IX (sex discrimination in education civil rights law) coordinators, non-specialised counsellors at the campus medical clinic and police. 


A Framework for Preventing Sexual Violence on Campus

I want people to trust their own institutions.

- Kaaren Williamsen


Williamsen is an expert in organisation development (and in fact completed her PhD on the topic) and strongly believes in the need for system-wide change to prevent sexual violence on campus. Williamsen has identified four key areas to focus on to bring about systemic change:

  1. Policy to comply with federal and state regulations, and establish our values and standards. 

  2. Response mechanisms in place that are fair, clear, transparent and have a variety of avenues. 

  3. Prevention using a public health model with a focus on peer-led initiatives. 

  4. Support for people who have been harmed and all those who have been impacted.


These are the four pillars of how to address sexual violence within university institutions, with a focus on having a variety of responses in each.


Speaking with Williamsen and Huhman was a reality check for my own experience in Australia. I realised how unprepared campuses here are to effectively and safely respond to and prevent sexual violence. Universities in Australia continue to build residential halls and create new on-campus communities without also establishing the necessary frameworks to prepare staff to respond to the increased rates of sexual violence and other on-campus issues. If universities choose to provide homes for students, they must also invest in wrap-around support.


Institutional buy-in: How to get senior executives to care

I asked Huhman and Williamsen how to get buy-in from the top of the institution to be able to do their groundbreaking work. Their advice? Focus on where the ‘hook’ is and think about who is in power. For many institutions in the US, the ‘hook’ is Title IX and the obligations it imposes on institutions. For others, it's a 'scandal' that receives media attention that subsequently puts public pressure on the institution to address sexual and gender-based misconduct. I note, however, that Title IX is not regulated and is used against victim-survivors in many cases by focusing on due process and litigation.


In 2020, the Provost (2nd in charge) at UMich was fired for serial offending. As a result, UMich hired consultants to review the systemic failures that allowed for his offending to continue without intervention. Alongside the consultants, they established an expert-led committee to work with the consultants to look at the overarching framework to prevent offending at that scale from happening again on campus. This is when Williamsen proposed the new office dedicated to supporting staff and faculty (Prevention, Education, Assistance and Resources (PEAR) unit), which was approved due to the timing and opportunity. 


The state of Michigan also requires all first years on college campuses to receive in-person  education programs on sexual violence. Using this as a ‘hook’, SAPAC was able to attain funding for a full-time program manager, two graduate student-staff and 25 paid student facilitators to facilitate their prevention education program. 

We must have a lens of preventing sexual violence and repairing harm.

- Anne Huhman


Universities view sexual violence as a compliance issue to be managed through policies and reporting structures. However, SAPAC goes well beyond compliance and instead focuses on preventing sexual violence and repairing harm - both core elements of creating a culture of safety and support. SAPAC digs deep into the work, which requires its staff and volunteers to practise vulnerability, humility and willingness to own and acknowledge their shortcomings. In this way, SAPAC creates a community that cares about student safety and wellbeing. It seems that many universities in Australia (and across the world) instead focus on managing their reputation through compliance, coercion and, in many instances, further violence and betrayal.


From a strategic perspective, sexual violence is pitched as integral to the broader diversity, equity and inclusion focus of UMich. The President of UMich also decided in 2004 that every single undergraduate student needed to be educated on sexual violence at the university. While in Australia this has emerged in a tick-and-flick Consent Matters module, at UMich it looks like comprehensive in-person workshops and supporting resources that provide a comprehensive understanding of sexual violence.


Moving Beyond Compliance and Towards Restorative Justice

A key barrier to cultural change in universities is the focus on formal reporting as the only option for a victim-survivor following sexual assault. However, there are many options available for victim-survivors within the institution and outside it. One of these options that has started to gain more traction in universities is restorative justice - a type of response that Williamsen has recently implemented at UMich. 


Prior to joining the university, Williamsen was a Title IX coordinator at another university. Williamsen spoke about how Title IX is a double-edged sword as it addresses gender discrimination, including campus sexual violence, through a carceral frame. In contrast, restorative justice is local and context dependent, and is something Williamsen is very passionate about promoting within the UMich community. 


Williamsen described the culture in the US as legalistic. She said, “people try to feel better and get their needs met through using a process that wasn't necessarily designed to do that”. This legalistic approach to managing campus sexual violence has created a whole new layer of legal professionals entering this space. By comparison, Canada does not have a Title IX equivalent and so they are not forced by regulation or federal law to do certain things - they are not limited by it either. This is similar to Australia in how we do not have any specific laws like Title IX that dictate university regulation over sex discrimination in education. However, Canada’s government (mostly at the state-level) has implemented other laws and policies to oversee the sector’s sexual violence responses. Australia has not.


There is a tension between the avenues of reporting for sexual violence, as police would usually argue they are best placed to respond whilst restorative justice practitioners may argue the same. What they sometimes fail to recognise is that it is the person who has been harmed who should be provided information and resources to make their own informed decision about the response they require.


The legal system is the backbone of sexual violence response within university settings. Some people will choose to engage with it where available, and most will not. What is needed is a process that is fair, transparent and clear. Context and nuance is everything - there is no one narrative or solution.


Activism

Activism means everything. I love the idea of conceptualising activism in lots of different ways. We have this stereotypical idea of activism as visual, vocal organising - which is powerful but it’s one type of activism. There are so many things that fall under this umbrella. Students educating their peers is activism to me. They are giving people the knowledge, awareness and skillset to be informed people. Activism is also organising an event that gives survivors a space to share their stories. Some people are quiet influencers. I care about knowing your unique strengths and uplifting those because everybody has something to contribute.

- Kaaren Williamsen


I relate strongly to Williamsen's reflection on activism as it confirms how important grassroots student-led activism is - whether it be visible or behind-the-scenes, and how we need all forms of activism to create structural change.


In solidarity, 

Camille Schloeffel


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