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From Institutional Betrayal to Institutional Courage

Updated: Jan 15

An interview with Jennifer Freyd, PhD, and Sarah Harsey, PhD, from the Center for Institutional Courage (Courage). Freyd is the Founder and President of Courage, and Harsey is Courage's Postdoctoral Fellow.


Location: Palo Alto, California, USA


Left to right: Sarah Harsey, PhD, Jennifer Freyd, PhD, and Camille Schloeffel (right) in Palo Alto, CA, United States

Speaking truth to power is Jennifer Freyd's activism superpower. For Sarah Harsey, it's her willingness to engage in confrontational debates. Both motivated by truth seeking and truth telling, they believe that we have a responsibility to be a part of the change agenda. As leading researchers in institutional responses to sexual violence, including identifying steps institutions can take to prevent and address misconduct, meeting them was an absolute privilege!


The Center for Institutional Courage, founded by Freyd in 2020, is a non-profit institution advancing the world’s understanding of institutional courage and institutional betrayal through rigorous scientific research, wide-reaching education and data-driven action – with the goal to inspire more accountable, effective and equitable institutions for everyone.


Freyd coined the term institutional betrayal in 2008 to describe wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals (e.g. sexual assault) committed within the context of the institution.


This is a concept that victim-survivors, advocates and activists such as The STOP Campaign use to describe their experiences and have been demanding university institutions proactively address to change their harmful actions. When attending a university in Australia, it is not an uncommon experience for a person who experiences sexual violence on campus to be betrayed, silenced, threatened or have legal action taken against them in cases where they decide to tell their story.


One of the steps Freyd emphasised institutions should take is to publicly acknowledge the harm caused by their betrayal and apologise to those impacted. What seems like an easy and inexpensive action is one where there is enormous resistance. Institutions become defensive - similar to how perpetrators react when they are held accountable for their behaviour. This is known as DARVO - Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.


Freyd, Harsey and I reflected on this reluctance as a form of un-activism - the status quo being to do nothing.


Feeling powerless? Same. So, what can we do to change this?


Courage. This is what Freyd and Harsey's research is all about - it's flipping the switch from institutional betrayal to institutional courage. Rather than solely focusing on why institutions are betraying victims-survivors, activists and whistle-blowers, it brings into question why institutions aren't being courageous and doing something about it.


So, what is institutional courage?

"It is an institution’s commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution. It is a compass oriented to the common good of individuals, the institution, and the world. It is a force that transforms institutions into more accountable, equitable, healthy places for everyone."

Freyd's compassion for others and dedication to influence positive change shone through during the interview. "I have never seen any other way than standing up for what's right", said Freyd. Despite how uncomfortable it may be, she believes that we have a responsibility to speak up when it is safe to do so. Institutions and the powerful people who run them are those that tend to be silent, however they're the ones who should be standing up and saying more because they are empowered to do so. The fact that they're often not doing so is not good enough.


So, how do we spark courage within these institutions? How do we possibly get them to act as though they have never done so before? How do we get them to change? While Freyd and Harsey acknowledge this is a difficult task, they point to some things we can do.


Activism is central to pressuring institutions to implement reforms and show some courage. In particular, activism that is embedded in principles of solidarity, collaboration and collective action, as this brings more power and influence to those solitary activists who sometimes feel powerless to enact substantial change.


Fostering connections is essential to build momentum for change. While this can be difficult sometimes, especially from my own personal perspective in dealing with my own betrayal trauma, it must be prioritised. One of my goals for this research is to start to implement these recommendations as I go along, by connecting with people, connecting others that I meet, and making connections more integral to everything that I do.


If you're being an un-activist, why?


It's time to be courageous!


In solidarity, Camille Schloeffel


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