It Really Takes a Village to Make Culture Change

In February 2012, my small village of individuals in Washington, DC came to Pennsylvania Avenue and testified in front of the Council of the District of Columbia that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted on a bus or metro train of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the area's public transportation agency. What I found unique that day was not who was in front of us while we were testifying, but who was behind us, those in the room: WMATA's general manager and other senior officials, the Metro Transit Police chief and assistant chiefs, several journalists with cameras, activists (most with smart phones), and the general public. The testifying survivors and groups like mine, Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), all recommending ways to address this pervasive crime. We broke the silence. Two months later, I was in the WMATA building working with WMATA officials on implementing all of the changes we requested, including a roll-out of public service announcements.

When I reflect back on this day and the subsequent events, two words often come to my mind, "community action." That day, and every day since, WMATA became aware that my village holds WMATA accountable to every passenger, including those riders who are reporting incidents of sexual harassment and assault. And I believe community action is one of the only ways we can end sexual violence.

However, creating culture change in addressing sexual violence can be very challenging. How do you define community? And what change does the community want? What appear as seemingly innocuous questions have very complicated answers in an area as diverse as our nation's capital. We struggle with these questions every day at CASS and I'm proud that we do. Non-profits need to constantly question who they are working for, why they are working and what the "consumers" want from the non-profit. Anti-sexual assault organizations often feel stuck in a cycle of wanting to address the community needs, but not having funding to do so. Many non-profits have missed opportune times to reflect the needs of the community because they had funding to do another project that may not have the deep impact that the community wants or needs.

This past year, I saw this happen. After the release of a fairly damaging report against the Metropolitan Police Department on how they handle sexual assault cases, there was resounding silence from those that should have been vocal. The report highlighted many valid concerns that survivors went through, and ones that advocates and attorneys have been aware of for some time. I knew something had to happen, as did my CASS colleagues, but we wanted to make sure that the community was taking action, and not us, the activists. We teamed up with the DC chapter of National Organization for Women and the DC Rape Crisis Center to see how the community wanted to address the concerns in the report. Survivors and allies moved forward by creating and signing petitions, coming to town halls and voicing their thoughts, speaking to the media, and educating our policy makers on the need for reforms.

After organizing like this for a year, CASS, as a founding member of the DC Survivors for Justice Campaign celebrated a key victory this week with the passage of the DC Sexual Assault Victims Rights Amendment of 2013. And the work will continue to other projects that are survivor-led initiatives.

It is amazing what a community can do when they come together to say "no" to sexual harassment and sexual assault. And, the community is beyond survivors and allies. This community includes corporate and small businesses, neighborhood commissioners, immigrant groups, public transit agencies, taxicab authority, survivors of sexual assault, libraries, universities and colleges, law enforcement, feminists, LGBTQ groups, non-profits organizations, women's groups, biking associations, bartenders and bouncers, students, teachers, men and boys, faith-based leaders, and more. When institutions come together with grassroots organizing that is community led and funded (as an alternative to government funding), the movement becomes stronger. Community action must be flexible, responsive, thoughtful, and sometimes reactionary, because human beings are. And, this is the way, when the village comes together looking at all our respective bottom lines, that sexual assault will end because sexual assault affects all of us.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read all posts in the series here.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.