Speak Truth aims to educate Nebraskans about sexual violence
Story and photos by Miranda Milovich, NewsNetNebraska
Texas native Shayla Swift came to Lincoln, Neb., to become a historian. A volunteer stint though with an event called SlutWalk Lincoln inspired a new kind of passion in Swift. She said it inspired her to start a new organization whose goal is to educate Nebraskans about the realities of sexual violence. That group is called Speak Truth to Sexual Violence.
“There is so much good work being done in Nebraska already when it comes to confronting the corrosive culture of sexual violence that confronts our population every day,” Swift said. “However with all that is being done and all that is available, we can do more.”
Speak Truth’s mission comes at a time when sexual violence awareness and prevention is being emphasized nationally. In January, President Barack Obama introduced a task force charged with combating sexual violence, especially on college campuses. According to a White House report, one in five women has reported being raped during their time in college.
Boys and men are also at risk. According to the report, one in 71 men report being raped, a quarter of them before the age of 10. Swift says rapes in the male population are often unreported because people may be less likely to believe that a man couldn’t do anything to stop the attack. According to Swift, victim blaming is just as bad for male victims as it is for females.
“For women, the questions asked are ‘What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Why did you go home with him?'” Swift said. “For men, the questions become ‘How did you let this happen? Why couldn’t you fight them off?'”
Swift says she wants this to change.
Since 2011, SlutWalk has been an annual protest against those who blame sexual violence victims for the actions of their perpetrators. The walks take place all over the world and allow sexual violence survivors share their stories, find support and empower themselves. For Swift, one of the founders of SlutWalk Lincoln, last year’s event presented another opportunity. An opportunity to do something more.
“It occurred to me that it was great what we were doing, but we were only doing it once a year,” Swift said. “That really wasn’t quite enough.”
Swift said she wanted to tap into the same grassroots enthusiasm that made SlutWalk a success and that’s when Speak Truth was born. The group’s goal is to work with schools and the community to provide educational programs about sexual violence and support for survivors.
Anti-Sexual Violence Education in Schools
According to Swift, some schools in Lincoln currently talk about sexual violence in health classes and some schools work with Voices of Hope, a crisis center for victims of sexual abuse, but most don’t have a enough resources available to them. Some schools don’t talk about it at all.
Brenda Leggiadro, coordinator for counselors and school psychologists at Lincoln Public Schools said that although students learn about violence while they are in school, sexual violence itself hasn’t been a primary focus. The school district’s lessons instead focus mainly on bullying in middle schools and dating violence in high schools, said Leggiadro.
Swift wants to take the teaching conversations beyond dating violence. She said that one goal of Speak Truth is to change the way people talk about sex and sexual violence in general. Since many people treat sex as a taboo subject, she says it’s often hard for people to communicate, which is contributing to the problem.
“Because we are not able to have appropriate conversations about sex, because we aren’t having appropriate dialogues about any of this, nobody can communicate their feelings appropriately,” Swift said. ”And it’s a really sort of toxic environment all around, because those are conversations we need to have.”
Swift’s organization will have speakers that visit Nebraska middle and high schools to deliver age-appropriate educational presentations. Speak Truth will also work with college campuses and will sponsor educational events in the community.
“Our hope is that Speak Truth will act as an entry point for schools to start incorporating this type of education into their curricula,” Swift said. “All of the people I have talked to so far have been very excited to help their students navigate the realities of sexual violence and they have been receptive to the idea that it would benefit the community.”
Since rape and sexual assault can leave lasting scars on victims, Swift would also like to eventually offer yoga classes and other activities for survivors to help them get back in touch with themselves.
“I want to support other people in their search to empower themselves and their community,” Swift said.
So far this year, 22 rapes and attempted rapes have been reported to Lincoln Police Department. Officer Katie Flood said there is no way for the police department to comment on whether or not there are unreported rapes in the community.
Changing the Conversation
Speak Truth had its first event last month at which a small group gathered at Mix in downtown Lincoln for a discussion about sexual violence and discrimination.
The event wasn’t large, but Swift said she was happy that the people who were there were having meaningful conversations. Those conversations ranged from what it feels like to not be able to walk down the street without being harassed with catcalls or comments to how it feels to be a man in a world where masculinity is often narrowly defined.
Although the conversations varied, the attendees seemed to have one thing in common: they want change.
“I run into people all time that are like ‘We need to change this,’” Swift said. “So I want to tap into that and give them the information on what the realities of sexual violence are. That way they are operating with the whole set of information at their fingertips.”
Swift, who has studied women’s history extensively as a Ph.D student at UNL, says it’s staggering to look at how far America has come since the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1970’s. She’s confident things will continue to change for the better—if people keep working.
“In the last 35 years or so we have transformed our legal understanding of sexual and domestic violence,” Swift said, “In 30 more years I think we will have done the same to our social understanding, but only if we jump start the process.”
Speak Truth to Sexual Violence will have another event on March 26 at 6 p.m. at the Bourbon Theatre in downtown Lincoln. In addition to listening to live music, Swift hopes to have more conversations with people who are ready to learn how they can help change the conversation when it comes to sexual violence.
“The fight against sexual violence is a social justice movement, like the civil rights and women’s movements,” Swift said. “The thing with social justice movements is that they tend to do the most powerful work when you can get the people involved on the ground. If you can help them have the means to do it, they can achieve great things.”