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Isman ’15: What a mattress can teach us about compassion

Opinions Columnist

The topic of sexual assault has been frequently on our minds and has been a crucial part of campus life since the end of last semester. Lena Sclove ’16 bravely went public with her story in April and thus inspired many around campus to also speak up. She not only helped spark the debate about current sexual assault policies, but also helped survivors to realize they are not alone.

It was under these circumstances — and with the birth of this community — that the “Carry That Weight” demonstration helped this momentum grow. The demonstration, which took place last week with the purpose of displaying “solidarity with sexual assault survivors at Brown and on college campuses nationally,” as The Herald reported, was welcomed by many.

As I walked around campus that day, I saw a few people carrying mattresses, and most of them were not carrying them alone. I was amazed — though not surprised — at the community support lent to many of these survivors and students who were raising awareness about sexual assault on campus. While sexual assault remains a taboo subject, this demonstration showed progress in our ability to talk about such serious and important matters.

More than that, “Carry That Weight” helped spark a national conversation about the way we deal with sexual assault on college campuses. Along with California’s “Yes Means Yes” law and the national government’s “It’s On Us” initiative, “Carry That Weight” asks students and community members alike to step up and fight for those voices that have long remained silent. Furthermore, these campaigns serve to place this fight at the forefront of our minds, reminding us that it happens more often than it is dealt with — and that we want that to change.

The “Carry That Weight” campaign shows “visible support for survivors in (each) community and (helps) to challenge a culture that silences survivors and hides the issue of sexual and domestic violence,” according to its website. More than that, the campaign brings together whole communities that perhaps have previously been too afraid to speak up.

This campaign has not only broadened the discussions we are allowed to have about sexual assault on campus, but has also helped create a community that stretches well beyond Brown’s gates. “Carry That Weight” has allowed us to focus on not only the bad, but also the compassion that other people can and will demonstrate toward their classmates.

Emma Sulkowicz, the senior at Columbia who started carrying her mattress around campus as a form of protest against that university’s policies that allowed her alleged rapist to remain on campus, said “performance is giving her new muscles and an inner strength she didn’t know she had,” according to the New York Times. Hopefully, the same is happening to all survivors and participants of “Carry That Weight.”

The point of many demonstrations seems to be only to complain about something. But Sulkowicz’s campaign is meant to empower and provide an additional support system for victims that wasn’t there before.

The Times reported that Sulkowicz also said “she rarely walks very far without someone lending a hand” — as a result, these individuals become not only part of her performance, but also part of her plight. So what can a mattress teach us about compassion? Well, that it exists. Perhaps it can teach us that many people want to help and speak out for others, and sometimes all they need is prompting. Asking someone if they need help can sometimes be as difficult as asking for help. We often don’t want to cross uncomfortable boundaries — we don’t want to make the victim feel even worse — but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.

Solidarity and compassion can take many forms. In this case, it has taken the form of a mattress, the form of a helping hand, even if it is to cross the distance from Sayles to Salomon. Coordinators of the vigil held last week “stressed their belief that the University has consistently failed to support victims of sexual violence,” The Herald reported. It seems that while administrators still have a lot to make up for, the community support for victims was already there — and perhaps has always been. More than that, it seems that administrators have heard the campus-wide cry for change and are taking steps accordingly. Their efforts to improve responses to sexual assault on campus will hopefully provide positive results and effect true change. It seems they are truly trying to transform previous policies by bringing in new administrators and even hosting a workshop for students.

Perhaps this demonstration will continue the discussion on sexual assault and other taboo topics, as well. And maybe victims will find increased solace in their peers and realize that they do have a community to fall back on. Helping carry a mattress across campus has proven that compassion is alive and well here. Sometimes it might be hard to see — especially in the aftermath of an attack — but victims, know that you are not alone.


Sami Isman ’15 helps carry that weight. She can be reached at

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