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Students help survivors ‘Carry That Weight’

Community members hoist mattresses, host vigil to display solidarity with victims of sexual assault

Updated Friday, Oct. 31 at 2:29 a.m.

As a crowd of students huddled near bare mattresses and others joined the group outside Faunce, one enflamed candle began to light another. As students helped their neighbors ignite their wicks, an evening vigil Wednesday to display solidarity with sexual assault survivors at Brown and on college campuses nationally commenced on the Main Green.

The vigil’s coordinators, Eddie Cleofe ’15, Will Furuyama ’15, Sydney Peak ’15, Aanchal Saraf ’16, Emily Schell ’16 and May Siu ’15, stood together before the crowd. Several shared their own experiences or emphasized their commitment to making students’ concerns known to the Brown community, especially the Sexual Assault Task Force charged with assessing the University’s current policies.

Siu opened with remarks on Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz and the inspiration for Brown’s participation in the movement she started. As part of a performance art activism project called “Carry That Weight,” Sulkowicz has carried a 50-pound mattress identical to the one on which her alleged rape occurred everywhere she goes on Columbia’s campus since Sept. 2, Siu said.

Sulkowicz has received national media attention for her performance piece, which is meant to visually represent the internal burden she carries as someone who feels she was inadequately supported by her university.

“Emma has sacrificed her anonymity in the most dramatic way to pressure not only Columbia but all universities to recognize the inadequacy of their assault policies,” said Siu, a close friend of Sulkowicz’s.

Sulkowicz intends to carry the mattress until Columbia expels her alleged rapist, he leaves campus of his own accord or Sulkowicz graduates, Siu added.

As a means of showing solidarity with Sulkowicz, as well as highlighting similar situations on Brown’s campus, Schell, the founder of Stand Up! and an active member of Imagine Rape Zero, proposed that Brown host an event for the National Day of Action on Wednesday, she told The Herald the day before the event.

Students at colleges across the United States — including many at Brown — carried mattresses in support of Sulkowicz and survivors like her.

“We want it to be both a reminder that this isn’t over but also a space of healing and a space of empowerment and commending the work that survivor activists and activists in general have done to date,” Schell said.

Schell said creating a safe, supportive and productive space for survivors is most important, especially those who do not feel comfortable reporting within the current system.

Schell added that she is fighting chiefly for clearer policies and a more supportive and aware campus to decrease incidents of sexual assault.

“For me it’s the lack of clarity. The hearing could go anywhere from a month to six months,” Schell said of Brown’s disciplinary processes. “There’s all of these different routes, but you’re not terribly clear on which one is the best and what happens in these and what you need to do and what happens after you file a complaint for x number of weeks.”

“It discourages people from reporting,” she added.

Other coordinators at the vigil stressed their belief that the University has consistently failed to support victims of sexual violence.

“This university, which has gone above and beyond to communicate its 250-year history and academic reputation, regularly ignores and omits the ways it has failed its students and the injustices it has perpetuated,” Cleofe said. With Saraf, he recounted Brown’s initial resistance to four female students in 1991 who called for grand policy modifications and created a “rape list” by way of bathroom graffiti at the Rockefeller Library that exposed alleged rapists on campus.

After they received national media attention, the University established a “multi-step policy that explicitly defined sexual misconduct as a punishable offense in the disciplinary code,” created an hour-long sexual assault education session during first-year orientation and initiated SafeWalk for students’ safety, Saraf said.

But apart from raising awareness about Brown’s treatment of current victims of sexual assault, student leaders used the vigil to call attention to the hefty burden survivors carry and to the power of standing together.

Emma Hall ’16 spoke about what constitutes strength for survivors of sexual assault, and the vigil also included a spoken-word performance from two students.

“When I started walking to campus this morning, I was struck by the physical weight of my mattress,” Peak said. “When people asked if I would carry it everywhere today, I’m reminded that this is precisely the point.”

“Your trauma will not fit through every door, will not be understood or respected at work, will sometimes prevent you from doing something you love, and it will hurt you and your body,” she added.

Many of the students who chose to carry a mattress around campus all day before the vigil described the weight of the mattress and its symbolic representation of the gravity of survivors’ internal burdens.

“I’m so in awe that that girl at Columbia has been able to carry her mattress around for eight weeks. Going to the Ratty this morning from Keeney was awful, and so I can’t imagine how she could do that for such a long time,” said Connor Watts ’18, who carried his mattress up from List Art Center with Wendy Gonzalez ’18.

Maria Paredes ’17, who helped Nico Sedivy ’17 carry a mattress up Thayer Street, said she took part to display that survivors do not have to deal with assault independently. “There are so many people here that are here for everyone.”

Jerome Cosby ’17 said he carried a mattress across campus all day and did not receive help, likely because of his gender. “People think that just because I’m a man that I don’t need help with carrying burdens,” he said.

Cosby said he has felt helpless in the face of a friend’s experience with assault and that he carried the mattress Wednesday to call for better policies with more effective trials.

Albert Anderson ’15, a former Herald staff writer, said all people, regardless of gender, need to support survivors and policy improvements.

“I don’t feel that our role should be any different than women,” he said. “I think that any reasonable person should have a pretty universal stance on this issue, and so in that respect … I think we really stand unified.”



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