For those of you who might not be aware, the annual National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) is underway in Los Angeles, California today and will continue with inspiring speakers, exchanging of business cards, and sharing of stories for the rest of the week. Fourteen hundred advocates, activists, allies, and academics from all over the country are gathered for a few short days to discuss best anti-violence practices and moving forward together. They will then go home reenergized, with a few new tools, some powerful connections, hopefully good memories, and will report promptly back to their organizations about what they learned. It’s pretty standard, as far as conferences go, with a price of admission of about $475 (and that’s the early-bird special).
A few blocks down the road, you will find another group working just as passionately on similar issues of anti-violence and systems of oppression. You will find patches of a survivor collective, known as the IX Network, who have organized in order to hold their schools accountable for their climates of rape culture and illegal handling of sexual misconduct cases. These are the students and few staff members who road-tripped 12 hours to Sacramento last week to testify in front of a joint legislative body for four University of California schools to be audited under Title IX and the Clery Act. These are the students who spend late nights informing others of resources, researching school policies from the public library, brainstorming on the floor in crowded rooms, and writing legal complaints by hand. And although this group of students received a shout out in the opening key-note from Lynn Rosenthal , White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, this is also the group that cannot afford seats at the NSAC conference table.
First, I want to acknowledge my privilege (link a good article if you can find one). I’m white and a lot of the anti-violence movement is white-centric. While my personal story isn’t often represented, my gender and racial identities are, which already gives me an upper hand, and I have a responsibility to acknowledge my privilege and when appropriate, use it to teach. I’ve also had the privilege to be in spaces like NSAC before; I’ve received scholarships to conferences, I’ve presented, and I’m connected technologically to the world.
But today, I’m physically excluded from this conversation. I’m literally outside the doors of workshops and best practices and I’m shut off from the dialogue inside. There’s privilege on the other side of the door that I can’t access for socioeconomic reasons. At bare minimum in order to attend the supposedly representative National Sexual Assault Conference, one must:
-Know that the conference is happening
-Somehow be able to pay the registration fee
-Pay for air travel
-Have a place or pay for a place to stay in Los Angeles
-Have a supportive employer or school who lets you take time off/ be able to afford the time off
-Buy food for the days you’re traveling
-Be in a family situation where travel is possible
(and the list goes on)
That’s a lot of privilege.
In no way am I discrediting NSAC 2013 or it’s attendees; I’m not blaming them for their privilege, and to be honest, I’d love to be there right now. Some of my colleagues from North Carolina are in attendance, and I acknowledge the hard work our non-profit, the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault , has done and the great struggles it has been through. Our incredible director and dedicated team there work long hours and are rarely given enough credit, as many in anti-violence work can relate. The grant writing process is never ending, there are always state budget cuts, and by the time you are finished cutting through the bureaucratic red tape, the work comes home with you and you are left on Sunday night planning the next week’s training sessions. Am I right?
But today, they and others have the privilege to be in a space with individuals dedicated to a common goal. Someone still paid almost $500 for attendees to learn and have this experience. I hope they learn from this experience and share the knowledge learned with those not in attendance.
The Anti-Violence Movement
So conferences are expensive; non-profit life is hard; what’s the point?
Here’s my issue: I see this conference as a microcosm of the anti-violence movement, and that’s problematic. Those who are privileged enough to gain admission to the “conference” are listened to, and those who can’t “afford registration” are often silenced. Of course, socio-economic status is only one example.
As an anti-violence movement, we do an OK job of spouting the rhetoric of inclusivity and intersectionality ; we do often talk about cultural confidence and we claim to value diversity. But do we really always follow our pontifications in practice?
I want to pose a few questions, some food for thought:
Beyond the class privilege and education it takes to know about and get to a conference such as this, whom else are we intentionally or unintentionally leaving out of this NATIONAL conference? While I know people of color who are attending, what is the representation like? How many young people are there? Are the materials only in English? And importantly, which groups are being erased repeatedly and left out entirely?
Obviously, I’m speaking more broadly than NSAC; I’m talking about the anti-violence movement as a whole.
For those of you at the “conference,” (literally and metaphorically) I challenge you to be cognizant of your privilege and/or non-privilege in the way you interact with other allies in the movement. How would you (or would you?) navigate the anti-violence movement differently if you were a male immigrant? A queer person of color? A low income student? An elderly woman? A veteran? A low-income trans* student?
If you’re at this conference, then you are likely passionate about these issues and want to work for change. So think about it: How can you use your privilege and your voice to make our movement more inclusive? How can you open the windows and doors of the conference hotel to create a more accessible conference experience?
These conversations are happening outside of the walls of your conference hotel and your non-profit organization, on a daily basis. Let’s acknowledge who isn’t at the table and then figure out why not. Invite people inside. Learn from them and teach them. There can be space for everyone in the anti-violence community and those of us with privileged voices do have a responsibility here. Violence does not discriminate; let’s do our best to make sure this movement doesn’t either.