Student leaders react to University of Virginia initiative Hoos Got Your Back

October 13, 2014
Photo by Agnes Filipowski
Fourth-year students and LGBTA activists Greg Lewis and Anna Boynton, along with other U.Va. students and Charlottesville community members speak out at a rally in front of the Rotunda on Sept. 26.

Story by: Carly Gorelick

The Hoos Got Your Back initiative recently launched this fall at U.Va. in light of state and national campaigns to address sexual assault on college campuses.  Coordinators of the initiative have teamed up with Corner merchants like Take It Away Sandwich Shop and student organizations on Grounds like One Less. So far, Hoos Got Your Back has expansive recognition among students. This blog post is the first in a series that hopes to follow and document the journey of Hoos Got Your Back as it continues to improve bystander awareness at and around U.Va. and to promote a deservedly safer environment for all members of the community.

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“Hoos Got Your Back” or #HoosGotYourBack has become a familiar slogan among the U.Va. community this fall semester. We read the words on the backs of Corner employees’ T-shirts, see it referenced in emails from administration, and can even see the effect of this bystander awareness campaign on many different organizations on Grounds. However, “Hoos Got Your Back” has a far more expansive influence than its hashtag.

The campaign is a part of the overarching initiative titled “Not On Our Grounds: A University of Virginia Initiative to End Sexual Violence.” Amidst a setting of growing national and state awareness of sexual misconduct in higher education, and the local tragedies of the missing student, Hannah Graham, and other reported assaults in Charlottesville, the campaign is designed to improve the overall safety of the University. Particularly, “Hoos Got Your Back” aims to improve bystander awareness, a goal that many merchants, faculty and student organizers find to be particularly integral to combatting sexual misconduct on and around

Grounds.

“We are aware that our community demands more than awareness, it demands change,” said Emily Renda, a staff member for the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer, Pat Lampkin.

Renda has had first-hand experience with the making of “Hoos Got Your Back” by assisting in multiple initiative efforts from speaking to merchants on The Corner to collaborating on the program’s name and purpose.

Regarding the difficulties of the campaign, Renda stated, “While it would be ideal to get everyone on board right away with challenging the frameworks of sexism, classism, racism, etc.(isms) that really underpin sexual assault as a phenomenon, this campaign is aimed first at just getting everyone to the table…”

Will Cadigan, a fourth-year student and member of both the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition and One-In-Four, similarly recognizes the challenges with having an impactful bystander campaign and the importance of community discussion.

“I think college is especially hard because people from all walks of life are pushed into one new social setting and people are really nervous about making impressions on others at college. It should never be a bad impression if you act as an active bystander,” said Cadigan, “but we’re trying to get people talking about this.”

On the other side of the matter, students like fourth-year student Greg Lewis, president of the Queer and Allied Activism group at U.Va.  and fourth-year Anna Boynton, member of Sigma Omicron Rho – the only LGBTA fraternity at U.Va. - both coordinated the Take Action Against Gender-Based Violence rally last month. The rally was originally promoted by the website http://hoosbackisturned.com and a mass email that controversially mentioned Hannah Graham as reasoning for a call to action. Students and community members at this rally made the claim that the University is not doing enough to maintain a safe environment for its students.

Claire Kaplan, the director of the Gender Violence and Social Change program at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, also became involved with the rally when the organizers had asked her to speak at the event. Kaplan later expressed her issues with the manner of the rally’s initial promotion in a follow-up interview.

“There is a place for radical action as well as more mainstream approaches. The issue is one of strategy and how to maintain one’s political values while working in collaboration with others,” she stated.

However, Kaplan also acknowledged the “anger and frustration” that encouraged the approach and mentioned how “the organizers discarded the ‘hoosbackisturned’ the week before, after meeting with Sara Surface and Will Cadigan of the Gender Violence Prevention Coalition” to correct for any offenses.

Nevertheless, the rally proceeded passionately as the attendees heard from Kaplan, Lewis, Boynton, third-year Yahiya Saad, who is the President of Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, and other rally members.

For instance, in her speech, Boynton stated, “The University values my test scores over my body.” Lewis also spoke of how U.Va. has a dominant culture that continues to marginalize minority groups.

The insinuation of the University as an ineffective bystander has also yielded conflict amongst students, as many discuss the University’s action, or lack thereof, in response to recent and old sexual assaults reported around the school.

Regardless of whether or not the University has done enough, both collaborators of the “Hoos Got Your Back” campaign and the rally organizers hope to see changes toward cultivating a safer community.

As Cadigan puts it, “I think that ‘Not On Our Grounds’ has the potential to do so many things, but we’re in uncharted waters. We should make this issue different in its scope. By making this issue paramount, we can really work together and combat sexual assault.”

“Obviously it would be great to see faculty, staff, and students engage with the campaign and be critical of it—host roundtables on its approach, give talks on bystander and culture change, co-brand student events with the campaign, etc.,” said Renda, “this initiative is just a start.”

As we slowly exit out of the “Red Zone”- the time of statistically higher rates of college sexual assaults as described by the National Institute of Justice- it will be interesting to see if “Hoos Got Your Back” develops further and promotes lasting influence on its community, or if the students will be left asking the University to improve its efforts.

Read more about reactions to Hoos Got Your Back:

The perspective of FY students

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