Missouri, We Have a Problem

Missouri, We Have a Problem

Today, the barely one-year-old Title IX Office of The University of Missouri released its first annual report of sex discrimination incidents. From August 2014 to the end of July 2015, there were 332 “potential incidents of discrimination,” which were “categorized into 374 alleged policy violations.” These violations include, but are not limited to, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, bullying, and stalking on the basis of sex.

One of those 332 incidents happened to me. And I was one of the extremely lucky ones.

On the evening of February 4, I was walking home from doing study hours at my sorority house to my apartment downtown. It’s a roughly mile-long walk, and as someone who walks a lot every day, it wasn’t ever a huge deal to me. I was used to walking at night, and was keenly aware of the dangers that come with it. However, this night it was snowing pretty hard, which made getting home safely a little bit more challenging.

I was walking up Ninth Street when I heard a car going the other direction honk at the car in front of it, briefly grabbing my attention. Their light turned green and I continued my walk, not really thinking anything of it. About a minute later, the same car that had honked was now on my side of the street, driving slowly next to me. I could see that the driver was a thin old man with greying hair, and he was just silently leering at me. His car was going probably barely any faster than I could walk in the snowfall, and he refused to break eye contact. I wanted to shout at him and ask him what his problem was, but the words died in my throat. Just as I couldn’t take it anymore, he suddenly sped off up the street, and I was kind of freaked out, but relieved he was gone.

I walked up the block past a church and a froyo shop, and as I was about to cross the street, he appeared again, waiting for me to cross in front of his car. I froze in that moment, and made the split-second decision to cross anyway, even though he probably could’ve gotten out of his car and grabbed me. I crossed with no incident, but he turned onto the street after me and continue to follow me, staring silently.

At first I had just thought he was creepy and wanted to look at a girl, but in that moment it became clear that he was trying to follow me home. I knew I had to do something, but it was freezing and after 10 p.m. on a weeknight, and wasn’t really sure where I could go to throw him off my trail. By some insane stroke of luck, a bar further up the street appeared to be open, and I rushed inside.

I was able to throw him off, call Columbia PD, and my roommate came to get me. One of the bar employees could tell that something was off and told me he’d keep a lookout until my ride arrived. I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t assaulted. If he had a weapon, he didn’t use it. I never saw him again after this incident, and thankfully nothing like this has happened to me since.

However, the test I had been studying for earlier that night was the next day, and there was no way I could focus on anything else besides the incident once I got home. I was supposed to have papers due in the next few days in my other classes as well, but I just couldn’t concentrate. I felt dumb to be so worked up over such a small incident in comparison to the things my peers have faced, but also was terrified at the thought of having to walk home alone at night again for the rest of the year. I decided to email my professors to let them know about what happened to see if they would have any leniency on upcoming due dates.

Luckily, all of my professors understood that I was pretty shaken up, and I was given anywhere from an extra day to a week to get assignments in with no penalty.

However, under Title IX, “University policy requires any employee of the University who becomes aware of sex discrimination (including sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking on the basis of sex, dating/intimate partner violence or sexual exploitation) to share that information with the Title IX Office, regardless of whether the recipient of the behavior is a student, employee, volunteer or visitor of the University.”

I reported my incident to all four of my professors at the time, not even in the interest of filing a report, but in order to save my grades. The only professor who sent a report of my incident to the Title IX Office was the one female professor I had that semester.

Anybody who is even vaguely familiar with the American higher education system knows that sexual assault is a horrifyingly huge problem on campuses across the country. Even though we had 332 incident reports, in reality there were probably hundreds more incidents on this campus alone. And if mine hadn’t been reported by the only professor who even dreamed that I would find this incident terrifying, mine would be among the hundreds of thousands that go unreported every single year in the United States.

This isn’t a dig at my fellow students or survivors who refuse to report – I technically have never reported an incident that has happened to me either. On the contrary, it is the universities that make the process of reporting a Title IX violation so arduous, and the environment on campus can become so hostile that survivors just don’t feel that reporting will get them anywhere. Even when they do report a sexual harassment or assault incident, student conduct boards will beleaguer the survivor about what they were wearing, how much they may have had to drink, or why they didn’t act differently at the time of the incident. Tens of thousands of rape kits go untested in the United States, and attorneys often don’t want to take up rape cases because they are often hard to prove to a jury, especially if the defense uses particularly slut-shaming tactics.

I also don’t understand why in the hell the University I love so dearly did not establish a Title IX Office until 2014. In high school, the only definition of Title IX we received was “the law that let girls play sports.” Every school in the U.S. that receives federal funding is required to have at least a Title IX coordinator, and my junior year of college was the first time I learned that “sex discrimination” under this statute even applied to cases of sexual violence or harassment.

The things survivors go through during their incidents are truly horrifying. But the treatment – or lack thereof – they receive after the fact can just make the problem worse. Universities are scared to make any move that would reflect badly on their image, whether they are concerned about prospective students or rich donors. They are afraid to confront perpetrators in the fraternity system, and rarely lay a finger on any accused member of their athletic teams. University boards – including our own – have let rapists continue to play on their sports teams, walk the halls of their academic buildings, and rage at their fraternity parties, all while survivors are swept under the rug, told their incidents didn’t occur, or drop out of school.

In a frankly half-assed effort to combat the sexual assault epidemic on our campus, a proposal put forth (by a bunch of old men) this summer suggested MU ban women from fraternities during peak party hours. Luckily, sanity prevailed after the MU Panhellenic Association Executive Board and all fifteen sorority chapter presidents addressed a letter to our chancellor expressing how ridiculous the majority of the proposal was. Hard liquor is now banned from fraternity chapter houses, but women are not.

And the administrative disappointments seem to keep coming this year – after our MSA President was verbally assaulted with racial and homophobic slurs one evening last week, our chancellor remained silent until an email that was sent out this morning addressed the incident. I want to believe that the administration really was “interview[ing] affected parties, and…have been in conversation with the students involved in recent incidents to ensure that their wishes are taken into account in any public statement that we make,” but with our past record of sweeping bias incidents under the rug, it’s kind of hard to give that benefit of the doubt. Not to mention that today it was also announced the the University will be cutting all ties to Planned Parenthood, jeopardizing the academic and health future of students and faculty alike.

So what are we left with here? What can we do? We can keep fighting. We can keep supporting survivors, speaking out when incidents occur, and educating people to understand what sexual assault and harassment are. But we can only do so much. Until universities across the nation stop bending to rich donors and special interests like athletic departments or fraternity boards and start taking the pleas of survivors and other students seriously, the system is not going to change. The watchwords of honor and duty do not only apply to the students of this University, but also to the administration that is charged with keeping us safe. Someday, we’re going to be alumni and maybe even rich donors. And we’ll remember what happened here.

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How to be a Hilltern

How to be a Hilltern

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As the only member of my internship program from the Midwest, there was definitely a learning curve for me when it came to assimilating to the culture of Washington, D.C. From social customs to navigating the metro, it definitely took a little bit for me feel like less of a tourist and more of a (still kind of lost) local. I’ve compiled some of the most helpful things I’ve learned in hope of helping out future interns on Capitol Hill.

In no particular order:

1. Get a SmarTrip card for the metro – it’s refillable, kind of like a debit card. Not only do you save money in the end, but you won’t have the hassle of having to buy a new metro pass every single time you have to get on the train. You can also register your card on WMATA’s website, so if you lose your SmarTrip, you can get a new one with the same amount of fare on it as the card you lost. And oh yeah – walk on the left, stand on the right.

2. When purchasing work/business casual clothes, stay on the subdued side until you know your particular office’s policies. Some offices will let women wear sandals in the summer, while others will want you to keep your blazer on at all times when Congress is in session. It’s easier to spice up a muted outfit with accessories than it is to tone down a brightly colored or too-short ensemble.

3. In the same vein, be sure the shoes you wear to work are comfortable. You may feel okay in the heels you bought when you’re just wearing them around your apartment, but you will probably regret wearing shoes that are too tight when you have to give a tour of the Capitol and its labyrinth of tunnels.

4. Get to work early – my sweet spot was about 15 minutes early. This serves three purposes: your boss/supervisor will either be impressed or at least have no reason to be upset about timeliness, you have time to find your way around if you get lost (which I did pretty often), and you will also have time to grab breakfast in a café downstairs. To my Senate side folks – I highly recommend the chocolate cake donuts from Dirksen Café.

5. When it comes to lunch, food from the House/Senate dining services tend to be cheaper than what you would find at a regular restaurant in D.C. However, the costs can add up quickly. While lunch habits vary from office to office, never feel ashamed to bring your lunch from home – you’ll end up saving a lot of money.

6. Memorize the names and faces of the Members whose offices are also on your floor. You want to be able to greet them appropriately if you ever run into them in the hall, but also to make sure you don’t do anything embarrassing if you happen to see them – like literally run into them because you’re so engrossed in your phone.

7. You will receive an orange badge from the House or Senate ID office. This is your ID during your entire time on the hill – wear it at all times when you are in a House or Senate building, and especially in the Capitol. This badge will get you in practically anywhere you need to go during your work hours.

8. However – don’t wear your badge anywhere except the hill. There’s no easier way to spot a newbie, out-of-state intern than a bright orange badge around their neck on the metro, walking down the street, or even shopping after work. It does not make you look powerful – it makes you look like you don’t understand D.C. social norms.

9. A final point about badges – while this ID is very important, it does not make you more important than anybody else. Treat everyone you interact with on the hill with respect, from the people in your office to the maintenance workers.

10. When your supervisor or SA gives you a task to do, complete it in a timely manner and do so happily – no matter what it is. So much of the intern experience on the hill is to allow you to see what the inner workings of federal government are like – and some of those inner workings require papers to be copied, coffee to be made, or office supplies to be organized. Proving that you can do minor assignments well shows your boss that you can be trusted to work on larger projects. Nothing is beneath you.

11. Once you gain your supervisor’s trust and are tasked with larger assignments, be sure to ask questions about their expectations of the project. However, don’t run over and bug your SA with minutiae every five minutes. Write down a list of questions you may have, and try to come to your boss with possible solutions instead of just a myriad of problems.

12. Ask for feedback. Once you’re at a mid-point or longer way through your internship, it’s appropriate to politely ask your supervisor about how they think you’re doing, and if there are any changes they would like to see in your work. Nipping a potential problem in the bud now will make for happier bosses at the end of your time there.

13. Get at least seven hours of sleep every night. It may sound silly to be reminded of this, but your energy level can impact your entire day – from your work ethic to what you decide to eat for lunch. You will have to get up earlier than you think, as commuting can take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and a half, depending on where you live. During my internship, I would get up at 7:30 am at the latest, work for nine hours, and then not be home until almost 7 p.m. Because I didn’t get the hang of sleeping early during my first couple of weeks, I was an exhausted zombie for a while. Go to bed early, for your own sanity.

14. But on the other hand, take advantage of all the professional opportunities you have while working on the hill. There will be networking events, happy hours, or receptions almost every night – particularly on the House side. You can bet on making connections and probably getting free food and drinks. If you’ve graduated and are looking for a job, these are some of the most important events you can go to.

15. Also take advantage of the fun stuff there is to do in D.C. in general! There are beautiful monuments, museums about probably anything you can think of (all the Smithsonians are free!), tons of shopping, restaurants, and other activities. I lived in Foggy Bottom, which was very close to Georgetown and all the cute waterfront shops and restaurants, and I also got to ride bikes around the National Mall at night and take in the beautiful lit-up monuments around the Potomac. There is something cool to do in almost every neighborhood in D.C.

16. It’s hot out, and it’s probably going to rain. I have on more than one occasion referred to D.C. as a swamp town, and I’m not kidding. Humidity can get up to 80% during the summer months, meaning you will want a water bottle if you do any extended walking. Even if the forecast calls for sunny skies all day, keep an umbrella in your bag – the weather can change at the drop of a hat.

17. Also, if you’re a makeup-wearing human like me, you’re going to have to invest in a makeup setting spray if you want any hope of your freshly done face not melting off during your commute. My favorite is the Urban Decay brand, but Makeup For Ever‘s does the trick pretty well too.

18. Arguably the most important point: take care of yourself. Being thrown into this fast-paced environment can be stressful, scary, and overwhelming. If you’re the kind of person who needs a “happy place” wherever you are, like me, seek one out early on. My favorite is the back of the Lincoln Memorial. Do what you need to do in order to keep your mental health intact and to take care of your body too. Maybe you go for a run, or draw, or watch a favorite TV show to wind down. Whatever it is, check in with yourself at least once a day to gauge how you’re doing and what you need to do in order to be in your best mindset. If you suffer, your work will too.

19. Call home often – contrary to how some people may act, there is life outside of the hill. Your family wants to hear from you, and you may be more homesick than you think.

20. Work hard and play hard. Take pictures of everything, go to any event you feel up for, make new friends and connections, and say “yes” as often as you can. It’s going to be an amazing, exhausting, and short summer.

Farewell, Parks & Rec: I Loved You, and I Liked You

Farewell, Parks & Rec: I Loved You, and I Liked You

When I started watching NBC’s Parks and Recreation during the winter break of my freshman year of college, I had no idea that a little sitcom about the parks and recreation department of a fictional Midwestern town would make such an impact on my life.

It isn’t a ratings darling. Not everyone has heard of it. It isn’t as funny as 30 Rock or as gripping as Scandal. Its first season was shaky, and more like a who’s-who of the diverse characters that inhabit Pawnee, Indiana. But once it took off and came into its own – it filled a spot in the hearts of television viewers that they may not have even known they were missing.

What makes Parks special is the realness of its characters and relationships. The lessons taught, whether through words of wisdom from Ron when Leslie is having another mental breakdown, or through Chris’s eternal peppiness or April’s reluctant hope, will live on in the hearts of all of the show’s faithful followers. These characters, so fully developed and thriving in relationship with each other, even when times are hard, is what makes the show irreplaceable to its fans. Whether it’s a breakup, wedding, election, new job, baby, or any multitude of other situations addressed in its 125 episodes, the characters always come back to doing what they do best – supporting each other through it all. Even Jerry/Gary/Larry/Terry/whatever they are calling him now.

But the most important lessons I learned from Parks & Rec came from its fearless leader, Leslie Knope.

I never imagined a character would have so much of an impact on my own identity. When I first started watching the show as a little freshman, I was pretty closed off. I didn’t really do any extracurriculars at school, and was pretty shy and not all that sure of myself. Seeing a character like Leslie Knope being featured in the forefront of a television show like that was almost jarring to me at first – how could someone be so full of life all the time? I thought she was funny, but kind of annoying. As I progressed through the seasons on Netflix, I got to see Leslie come more into her own, through her relationships with her coworkers, her best friend, and her myriad of bad boyfriends. As Leslie progressed into a better version of herself, so did I.

She relentlessly fought for what she thought was right, and followed her dreams, going from a small-town bureaucrat to city councilwoman to head of the Midwest branch of the National Parks Service. Leslie taught me that it’s okay to feel too much, to care too much, to BE too much. While at first I was afraid to let my passion for the people, causes and things I love show, seeing another woman on TV do exactly that, while she didn’t execute everything perfectly, made all the difference. I was able to let this shy, quiet light inside of me grow into the absolute happiness I try to exhibit every day. I have gone from hearing “Why don’t you ever come out of your room?” to “I could never imagine that amount of joy in my body.”

So as the show comes to an end tonight, I don’t fear losing all the things I’ve learned, or the things that have helped me grow. I’ve come to see things in my own life as Leslie sees them in hers – my big is basically my Ron Swanson, I lovingly refer to my best friend from home as Ann Perkins (that beautiful tropical fish), and I have countless cheerleaders in my life like Chris or Andy or Tom. Maybe someday I’ll even find my own female Ben Wyatt-equivalent. I have a kind of ambition I didn’t before, and maybe a little too much of it. I’ve become a better problem-solver and can think on my toes. Parks has shown me the beauty of female friendships and feminism through countless scrapbooks and Galentine’s Days, and has shown how cool and rewarding working in government can be (just me? okay). But most of all, Leslie and the rest of the Parks gang have taught me that it’s okay to be exactly who you are, because the right people will love you and stick around anyway. And when things go wrong…there’s always breakfast food.

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“Nobody achieves anything alone.” – Leslie Knope

What They Don’t Tell You: (Almost) One Year Out

What They Don’t Tell You: (Almost) One Year Out

Kayla was sunshine. Her personality burst forth through her infectious laughter. Growing up a year apart for almost a decade, we shared school plays, long nights, and weird inside jokes. We took silly pictures and wandered the mall together. We weren’t BFFs, but we shared a connection, and I was never more proud of her than when she came back from her Kairos 15 retreat her senior year and told me what she had learned. It hurts to remember that her note to me is one of the only things I have left from her.

Grief doesn’t come with a handbook. No matter who you are in relation to the person who was lost, no matter how they went – it’s unpredictable.

They don’t tell you that the word “murder” never gets easier to say or hear. Even when friends joke about things, like “I’m gonna murder you,” or “I murdered that test,” it jolts you. You’d never thought it would happen to someone you knew.

They don’t tell you that the nightmares, while horrifying, eventually stop. Or at least, come way less frequently. Thank god.

They don’t tell you how triggering elements surrounding a situation like this can be. How an event unrelated to your loss can bring back so many memories and pain – like yesterday’s two-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. The situation is different, but the connection is there.

They don’t tell you that you’ll have regrets, even if they don’t make sense. You’ll wish you had tried to connect more before it happened, and you’ll even illogically regret things after it happened. I had to learn that there is no correct way to mourn someone – everyone handles this pain differently, and one way of coping (as long as it’s healthy), isn’t superior to another.

They don’t tell you how powerless you can feel in the face of death and the unknown. Especially when your high school community has dealt with loss not once, not twice, but six times in the last two years.

They don’t tell you that this isn’t something you can just “get over.” Ever. It may occupy less space in your mind, but there will always be something missing, no matter how small.

But what they also don’t tell you is that the way to feel powerful again is to find a purpose for this pain.

Going through losses like this changes a person. My perspective on life has been shaped immensely through the tragedies of the past two years. I love hard. I seize any opportunity (probably more than I can balance) to make a difference. I realize that one can’t take any day for granted, because there are absolutely no guarantees in this life. I’m working on living in the moment. I try to wake up in the morning with a positive attitude, because every day is another chance to do anything – start a movement, make someone’s day, spread joy, fall in love – the possibilities are endless.

But it’s not always that easy. Life is definitely not easy. When things get hard, I get frustrated. I try not to give up on anything, but sometimes I just can’t handle it all. But when I truly find myself at an impasse, struggling to make a decision or see something clearly, I ask myself: “What would Kayla do?” And therein usually lies the answer for which I had been searching.

What they also don’t tell you is that even after a loss like this, you’re capable – and allowed – to be happy again. People, things, and opportunities will come into your life and fill you with more happiness than you ever thought possible. You will get your crap together. You will be successful and accomplished and have moments you can’t even believe are real because your heart is bursting with such pure joy. Even after something like this happens, you will be able to be the happiest you’ve ever been in your life – and the ones you’ve lost wouldn’t want anything less for you.

I’m at an incredible place in my life. So many things lie ahead of me, and I’m grateful every day to have the chance to attend the best university on earth (in my humble opinion), be surrounded by amazing people, and be allowed great opportunities through jobs, extracurriculars, and more. I’m 21 years old, which is simultaneously the oldest I’ve ever been and still pretty young by most peoples’ standards. And while it’s great to bask in the blessings I have, I am humbled by the fact that not everyone gets these chances. At the end of the day, even just having my health and loved ones is enough.

They don’t tell you that while you definitely won’t forget what happened, instead of a huge, gaping hole in your heart, the loss will begin to feel like reaching out for a hand that isn’t there. It will never be comfortable, but it will eventually become bearable.

They don’t tell you that no matter how far removed you feel from the church, you will hope with all your heart that there is a heaven, because you couldn’t imagine them going anywhere else.

They don’t tell you that crying never becomes fun, but it actually can make you feel better, if you let it.

They don’t tell you that a year can go by so fast, that you will never have all the answers, that you still may not believe it actually could happen to your town, your friend, to you.

They don’t tell you that the sun will rise again, that you will laugh and smile and love again, that you will be able to feel them at times, through a butterfly or a song or a warm feeling in your heart.

They may not tell you any of these things – but I will.

 

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Dear street harassers: I want my participation points back

Dear street harassers: I want my participation points back

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Ninth Street in downtown Columbia, MO.

It’s taken me a while to write this, because at first I thought I was blowing it out of proportion. But as similar incidents relentlessly occur in not only my life, but in those of others, I couldn’t put off writing about this anymore.

It’s also been a while since I’ve written here, so bear with me.


It happened one afternoon last month while I was heading to class.

I live downtown, but not too far from campus, so I walk pretty much everywhere. I was running a little late, so I knew I had to book it in order to make it to class on time. This class in particular takes attendance, and if you’re even a few minutes tardy, you will lose points. So I was walking particularly fast that day, even for me.

Imagine my surprise when I was pulled out of my powerwalking tunnelvision, headphones blaring, by a random dude coming out of the Subway restaurant on Ninth Street.

This man had the gall to approach me, a random girl on street who CLEARLY was not interested in interacting with anyone, grab my arm and pull me close to him, and say into my ear in the sleaziest of voices,

“Tell your boyfriend I said hi.”

I wrenched my arm away and kept walking, not even getting a good enough look at him to tell you what color his hair was. As I crossed the next street, this nauseating guilty feeling bubbled up from the pit of my stomach, setting my skin on fire.

Why didn’t I do anything?

Why didn’t I stop and give him an earful? Why didn’t I throw a punch, why didn’t I do ANYTHING to show him his behavior was beyond unacceptable?

By the time I got to class a few minutes later, I was late. Ten participation points gone.


In the grand scheme of things, those ten points won’t matter. But the rest of this situation absolutely does.

Anybody who knows me would describe me as a feminist, determined to further justice and equality. Everyone knows I would speak out if something like this happened to someone else I knew, whether the situation was more or less serious that what I experienced. Then why did I do nothing when it happened to me?

I wasn’t really sure until I felt that uncomfortable again.

Last night, I was walking home from hanging out with my sorority littles. They live on the far side of campus, so my walk was a bit longer than usual. I was passing a building on University Ave and these men yelled off their balcony at me. It’s definitely not the first time I’ve been catcalled, but something about this time just sent me over the edge.

“You SLUT!”

“Are you walking or working, huh?”

Then one of them threw a bottle off their balcony – too far away to hit me, but close enough to make me flinch. Raucous laughter ensued.

This was my chance to say something, yell back, cuss them out.

But I didn’t.

Why?

Women are conditioned to believe a few things about sexual harassment growing up – and pretty much none of them are conducive to feeling empowered.

We are taught that if we don’t want attention, we shouldn’t dress provocatively.

We are taught that if we behave a certain way, it is justifiable for men to take advantage of us.

We are taught to “not get raped,” instead of men being taught not to rape.

We are taught to “be the bigger person,” to not make a scene, to pretend that these things don’t happen to “girls like us,” in order to save face.

We are taught to question victims rather than prosecute perpetrators.

Enough.

I could sit here and tell you the following things, justifying why my experience is “shocking”:

  • I was wearing Nike shorts and a t-shirt the day that man grabbed my arm.
  • I was also sober, and it was 3:25 in the afternoon.
  • Last night I was completely covered – the most form-fitting thing I was wearing were leggings.
  • What those guys yelled off their balcony isn’t true.
  • The bottle wasn’t even close to me when it hit the ground.

BUT NONE OF THOSE THINGS MATTER.

If I am wearing a parka or wearing a see-through minidress, whether I am sober in the bright light of day or out drinking at night, whether I sleep with no one or 50 people, whether I am actually in danger or just being shouted at from a balcony 100 feet away – I don’t deserve to be harassed, assaulted, or worse. And neither does anybody else.

There are some inherent dangers involved with going to college. If you walk out in front of a campus bus, you’ll probably get hit. If you don’t go to class, you probably will do poorly come exam time. But a woman’s chances of being sexually assaulted increase four times simply by pursuing postsecondary education – and we can’t let that happen anymore.

There are plans in the works. There is a movement, if slow-moving, if not quite loud enough yet. Students, professors, parents, friends, sisters, legislators are coming forward and together to decide what we can do to stop this epidemic. Sexual assault and women’s centers are attaining more resources and clout, and campus professionals are beginning to realize that safety training is a necessity, not just something they can do if they find free time. Police departments and universities have begun to foster relationships that can help advance the process of reporting sexual assault, rather than hindering it.

So while I’m never going to get my participation points back for that day, I am going to get my voice back. No more feeling ashamed, no more feeling like speaking up won’t make a difference, no more standing idly by.

No matter who it happens to, where it happens, what time it is or what anybody’s wearing – speak up. We can’t afford not to.