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Legislating Change: Every Voice Coalition

An interview with Lily Bohen James, the co-Executive Director of the Every Voice Coalition, a grassroots organisation that addresses campus sexual violence through legislative reform. James is an anti-sexual violence and reproductive justice activist. After getting involved with the Every Voice Coalition in her freshman year, she loved serving on both the Massachusetts and Connecticut teams before joining the National team in August of 2020.


Location: Zoom (Portland, Maine, USA + Toronto, Ontario, Canada!)


Lily and Camile on zoom smiling
Lily Bohen James (top) and Camille Schloeffel (bottom)

Lily Bohen James started working with the Every Voice Coalition (Every Voice) while attending university in Massachusetts. During this time, Every Voice was a group of students in Massachusetts focusing on making change on campus. Unfortunately, the group was not making any progress due to the university putting up barriers and using delay tactics (i.e. waiting for students to graduate and the activism to die down to avoid implementing any change). In response, this group of students decided to band together by reaching out to students across all universities in Massachusetts to enact legislative change. The MA Every Voice Act (CH 337) enacts comprehensive measures to combat sexual violence and support victim-survivors studying at Massachusetts' private, public, and community colleges and universities. The law came into effect in January 2021 and created a rush of momentum to encourage other states to replicate the legislation. 


During the 2020 COVID lockdown, James and her colleagues took the time to solidify Every Voice as a legitimate organisation with not-for-profit status and with 2 full-time staff, and at times other part-time staff when they had the funds to support them. Every Voice is now a national movement in the USA that has officially expanded into 14 states and Washington DC, with the goal of being in 50 states in the next 10 years.


SO impressive!


In addition to passing laws, Every Voice also trains students to be advocate leaders in their own university communities to pass laws in their respective jurisdictions. At the time of interviewing, they had trained more than 45 students in an advocacy summer program and passed 6 state level laws. I really admire how James and her team prioritise compensating students who attended their summer program by providing them a stipend so they can continue to live and pay their bills. Every Voice budgets money specifically for this in acknowledgement that universities rely on unpaid student labour too often. They do not want to replicate this sort of exploitation of labour, so paying people for their time is one of their top priorities.


Theory of change

James has a clear theory of change to prevent sexual violence on campus. Sexual violence is not happening in a vacuum, so obviously we should be intervening at all levels of society. Legislation is a great way to achieve this as it sets a standard across the state that not only provides a legal framework, but influences cultural change.


When sexual violence occurs outside of an educational system without structures in place to more easily intervene, it can be difficult to find ways to address this from a systemic perspective. However, in a university setting, we have physical and community based infrastructure we can use to intervene. This is the leverage James and her colleagues use to ensure that universities have no excuse to not respond to sexual violence, when legislation dictates certain things they must do in relation to campus sexual violence.


They flip the university narrative that “it's all too hard” and that “there is nothing more to be done”. Their legislation helps universities to create cultures of proactive prevention and response.


Developing and passing legislation

Title IX is a 50-year-old law that prohibits sex discrimination in education settings. Although universities have created systems to fit into this requirement, such as Title IX offices, this law was not intended to focus on sexual assault and harassment. Out of desperation and necessity, this is what it turned into. The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (known as the Clery Act) is a federal law requiring colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. However there are issues with how this works in practice too. While these two federal laws are really important, they don't necessarily meet the needs of students.


James told me that in surveys conducted with student populations, sometimes 90-95% of students who experienced sexual violence chose not to report to their institution or the police. This leaves an astronomical gap in the need for support not being addressed at all by the current systems set up to support student victim-survivors. Using this information as an evidence-base, Every Voice works through a non-carceral feminist lens in recognising that these current systems are not meeting victim-survivor needs and that new ways of responding to sexual violence are required.


The work of Every Voice (which is reflected within the legislation they develop and pass) has five core components:

  1. Requiring institutions to increase access to and options for supportive resources for victim-survivors. The options on campus are inadequate in many instances, so it can be difficult to trust the institution. Every Voice has initiated universities and rape crisis centres to create memoranda of understanding so students can easily access local rape crisis centres.

  2. Requiring institutions to create an amnesty policy. Amnesty policies ensure that students cannot get in trouble when reporting sexual violence, such as drinking underage or using drugs. Victim-survivors in many cases are punished for ‘breaking the rules’ when they report sexual violence to their college or university, which breaks down their trust and leads to them experiencing retaliation instead of being supported. This amnesty policy also extends to bystanders who witness an incident.

  3. Requiring institutions to hire a confidential resource advisor (who is not a mandatory reporter) to support victim-survivors and provide them with information about their options moving forward, such as their reporting options and other support options like emergency accommodation. Students often don't know what their rights are when they are at university, or the support and reporting options available to them. The confidential resource advisor/s is dedicated to providing confidential support and referral pathways to students, thereby filling an existing gap in service delivery.

  4. Requiring institutions to deliver annual prevention and response training to students, staff and faculty including information that is specific about the resources available. There is also an extra requirement that faculty and staff receive specific trauma-informed training so they are equipped to respond to students who disclose to them.

  5. Requiring universities to administer a campus climate survey (sexual violence prevalence and monitoring survey) every two years, to be sent out to every student in the university. This data must then be published on their public website and stored in a central repository. This survey should capture more than the prevalence of harm occurring on campus, but also ask questions about the resources students are accessing for support and how they experienced these resources. This is key to ensure the data collected assists with understanding what is and is not working, to then work towards improving responses.


On top of these five core aspects of Every Voice’s work, they are also working on creating a waiver for students who experience sexual violence and are consequently unable to meet the relevant grade requirements for their educational program (for example, students on scholarships which require a certain GPA).This is an equitable waiver which would help so many victim-survivors who struggle to keep on top of their studies after assault due to the ongoing effects of trauma to remain in their education course, instead of being punished for the harm they experienced.


These components are the baseline of what should be provided at university and there is so much more that universities can do beyond this to prevent sexual violence and support victim-survivors.


Implementing legislation

While the first step is to develop a Bill and then pass law, the next is to provide oversight and monitoring of how universities are meeting these standards in practice. Every Voice is now at the implementation phase in states such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts. With no current accountability mechanisms in place to ensure universities implement these measures, this poses a challenge for Every Voice in measuring outcomes. The first state to pass Every Voice legislation with their core five was New Hampshire (Every Voice NH Act (RSA 188:H)). Since then, they have seen the first student climate survey completed which revealed alarmingly high rates of sexual violence. In this survey, students also reported the most common impacts are a drop in GPA and having to spend large portions of their incomes to be able to afford specialised and necessary support. And although 40 percent of students reported that they knew where to report if they experienced sexual violence, there remained a very small number of people choosing to report. This demonstrated that even when people have awareness of where to report on campus, they fail to do so anyway due to a lack of trust in the institution, fear of not being believed or experiencing retaliation, and other issues.


What makes this legislation stand out is how it dictates specific, best practice and relatively easy-to-implement policies and practices. This practicality has been a key factor in Every Voice's success in convincing legislators to get on board. Now, it is up to Every Voice and the government to monitor the progress of institutions on how they are meeting these obligations.


Coalition building for change
“We focus a lot of our work in being partners to others working in this space and having a collaborative approach.”

Every Voice has been proactive in building coalitions and creating partnerships across the sector and with other grassroots organisations with similar goals and values. James also spoke about how they don't enter spaces where other advocacy groups are, since this shows that there isn't a gap that needs to be filled.


While it is important to find champions within institutions to work alongside, James also emphasised that they may not have good institutional support which may limit how much they can do. This is why James focuses on learning what these people need to be able to do their job better and to support students. This way, Every Voice can focus on identifying tangible actions to improve internal processes and institutional buy-in which can be advocated for from Every Voice's external positionality.

“Universities do not respect student activists as key stakeholders.”

James and I have had similar experiences from the university institutions we have come up against in our activism, particularly how these institutions rely on student activists and leaders to do unpaid work that staff should be responsible for. Student activists are then treated as though they have no expertise in preventing violence or supporting victim-survivors, even though they are the ones doing it in practice every single day.


Every Voice is grounded in activism and ensures they are student-led. James expressed deep gratitude for the students who are activists on this issue and those who are unable to be active due to the trauma they have experienced.


James quoted Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley who said:

“Those closest to the pain must be closest to the power.”

This statement embodies activism and acknowledges the strength of laws that are developed and passed by the people they directly affect.


My final reflection from my discussion with James is how severely Australia needs similar laws to those passed through Every Voice’s advocacy. Australian university students desperately need a law that states that universities cannot retaliate against them for ‘breaking the rules’ when experiencing sexual violence. Australian university staff and faculty desperately need an amnesty policy to protect them from being punished for supporting victim-survivors and activists, to reduce harm and create a safer environment for reporting and response. The time is over for internal policies that aren't followed and simply don't work. We need state and federal legislation holding institutions accountable for their inaction and betrayal in an attempt to maintain power and control.


Speaking with James gave me so much hope and inspiration for what could be done in Australia, and that activism really is at the core of cultural change.


In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel


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