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Student Activists Mobilising for Change: An Interview with Micah Kalisch

Updated: May 14

An interview with Micah Kalisch, the Founder of Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project, a trauma-informed initiative led by sexual violence victim-survivors at the University of Toronto. At the time of interviewing Kalisch in late 2022, she was also the President of Trinity Against Sexual Assault and Harassment (TASAH), which is a student club that provides support for survivors and fosters safe and inclusive spaces for students at Trinity College.

Location: University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Micah and Camille smiling in the Trinity College courtyard outside
Left to right: Camille Schloeffel and Micah Kalisch
“Sexual violence thrives on silence, living in the shadows, so any sort of activism work to disrupt the silence is so integral to dismantling rape culture.”

Micah Kalisch is a bold and brave survivor-activist who stands up for what she believes in. She has come up against institutional leaders and has not held back in advocating for the rights of students. In particular, she has been vocal about senior staff at the University of Toronto (UofT) who have perpetrated sexual violence and the institutional betrayal from staff in wellbeing roles that are meant to be there to support students, not silence them.

In 2020, Kalisch founded the PEARS Project which stands for Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors. The PEARS Project is a grassroots, trauma-informed coalition of students that provides support and resources to survivors of sexual violence across UofT. Kalisch leads the organisation using survivor-centred principles such as autonomy, consent, equity, mutual aid, support and care. She also recognises the importance of uplifting victim-survivors as leaders so their views can inform policy change at UofT.

In Kalisch's first few months as an undergraduate student at UofT, some of her friends were sexually assaulted and had no idea what to do, where to go, or what the process was to report and seek support. She supported these friends to report their experiences to the university administration and ask for resources. The university's response was, ‘this isn't a priority right now’, and did not follow up with them. This was the catalyst to Kalisch's drive and passion to start advocating for both UofT and Trinity College do more to prevent sexual violence and support victim-survivors. In doing so, she took on the role of President of the student group Trinity Against Sexual Assault And Harassment (TASAH).

Once TASAH was up and running at Trinity College, she supported her peers in other colleges to establish similar groups and built a coalition of people passionate about supporting victim-survivors and advocating for better policies on sexual violence response processes. It was the systemic issues that she and her peers kept coming up against that led her to create PEARS, as a way to bring all of the college specific groups together on a larger campaign.

When campaigning for safer, more trauma-informed support for victim-survivors at UofT, PEARS released a video, Surviving the Centre, which contains statements made by survivors of sexual violence who have attempted to access support on campus. These statements mention gender-based and sexual violence, rape culture, gaslighting, assault perpetrated by a professor, institutional negligence and barriers to accessing support. Instead of acknowledging the horror of what student survivors had experienced when reporting to the university and reaching out to PEARS to work together to do better, the university reacted with denial. Kalisch recounted the university’s response to the allegations in the video being along the lines of ‘well a lot of the things they addressed are things we have already fixed or that are not a problem anymore’.

The university did eventually meet with Kalisch but this only occurred when she reached out to them first. This sort of experience is eerily similar to my engagements with many staff at the Australian National University denial, rejection, victim-blaming and no real intention to change.

“The University of Toronto has so much money, power and privilege so they could be setting an example but they don’t.”

With this lack of trauma-informed and appropriate support in place for students, Kalisch decided to focus her efforts on establishing a peer support service through PEARS with training and support by the Dandelion Initiative, a local grassroots organisation that provides gender-based violence prevention and response education and services. Most of what Kalisch and the PEARS team do is provide information and support to people about their options for support and reporting after assault. Aside from providing peer support, PEARS volunteers conduct regular reviews of UofT's sexual violence policy and their programs, hold protests and town halls to call for change, and foster a consent culture on campus.

Unfortunately, the restorative justice processes that have been implemented on campus at UofT have not been survivor-centred or trauma-informed. Kalisch and most of her PEARS team believe that the prison industrial complex should be abolished and new ways of addressing harm must be instituted. There is so much potential for restorative justice practices to be done well and to achieve better outcomes for all involved. However, when restorative justice is delivered poorly, it is difficult to think about other options to address students who perpetrate violence and promote accountability. Further, for faculty and staff, Kalisch holds a view that there should be no second chances as they should know better than to abuse another person. For these perpetrators, strong action must be taken and they should be removed from the university.

“Everything intersects so if we’re not doing anti-racism work or amplifying queer voices then we can’t address sexual violence.”

One of the core pillars of Kalisch's work is to foster intersectional practice that values the peer supporters being survivor-led. She works to minimise any hierarchies as much as possible so as not to reproduce the harmful structures of the university system. She also has been focused on promoting self-care and community care for all volunteers to reduce burnout, as this work can feel constant and draining especially when coming up against an institution that refuses to take them seriously.

A key similarity in Kalisch's experience and mine is how the threat of defamation against survivors, activists and journalists means that the media rarely picks up these stories and platform the atrocities of what goes on inside university walls.

“Mobilising is something we have been trying to navigate to create collective power.”

Trying to mobilise students in mass can be difficult when many students don't want to get involved in activism that is inherently feminist. This is often due to preconceived ideas about feminism and gender equality, or because students see the issue of campus sexual violence as ‘not that bad’. PEARS’ challenge to mobilise students has in part been due to their advocacy not being viewed as legitimate or taken seriously by university administrators. This is largely due to the movement being mostly made up of women, fem and queer folks who are already delegitimised in society. Without this collective power and perceived legitimacy, this also leads to funding being difficult to attain and therefore the work is more difficult to sustain.

This leaves me three key words for activists and grassroots groups seeking fighting against harmful institutions:

  • Legitimacy

  • Funding

  • Mobilising.

These three elements are important for activism to be impactful and sustainable. It is a challenge for leaders of activist groups to keep this work going when they're already burnt out, have high volunteer turnover and subsequent lack of institutional memory for new volunteers to take on leadership roles in a way that is doable. This is why Kalisch has been advocating for PEARS to be embedded more formally within the institution so their support services can be more formalised and long-lasting.

“I come to [this work] from lived experiences as a survivor because I wish I knew people doing this work when I was younger.”

There is so much isolation and shame surrounding sexual violence so finding community and support is rare and hard to do. This is what brought Kalisch to the place she is now and it has definitely made her realise how much support is needed. I relate so strongly to this sentiment as I similarly entered into the activism sphere seeking to support people who had experienced sexual violence and realised that the community of supporters is unfortunately very small. But through leaders like Kalisch working to build movements of care and networks of peer supporters, she will be making a massive difference in the lives of many.

Kalisch is a collaborative activist that has either directly been involved in many other initiatives or partnered with them. Some of these organisations she also works with includes Students for Consent Culture (Canadian student-led activist group addressing campus sexual violence), REES (Canadian organisation providing a reporting platform for institutional sexual violence), and various women's shelters in Toronto. Her interconnectedness across the gender-based violence sector on a national and local scale is inspiring and testament to her passion to support others.

“I used to think an activist was the person with the megaphone leading the marches, but now I think it is so different for different people and is about showing up in a way you can that day. It could be doing the work directly or supporting other people doing the work. Activism is so rooted in community it can be learning about decolonial practices or staying in bed so you can go support people the next day. It's about looking after ourselves, others and the broader community.”

Power to Kalisch and her fellow activist community within UofT and the broader Toronto community in the face of systemic abuse and institutional betrayal from the organisations that should be protecting and supporting them. I am so grateful to have connected with such a strong activist in our efforts to build an international collective network of victim-survivors and activists who are creating substantial change in their local communities.

While it is difficult to achieve, building movements that are sustainable is key to creating safer communities as without activists doing the groundwork, institutions won't reform their harmful systems.

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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