On Monday, April 23, a small crowd gathered in the lobby of Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence as part of Macalester’s second annual Imprints Project: a student-organized art installation that uses handprints and stories to assert the presence and relay the experiences of survivors on campus.
In the week leading up to the event, students, faculty and staff who’ve experienced sexual violence were invited to add their handprint to the several canvases to be put on display Monday in the Fine Arts Center. The organizers also invited survivors to respond anonymously to an online prompt regarding the ways in which sexual violence had left an imprint on their lives.
Allies had the opportunity to participate in the event as well, filling out postcards with messages of support for display next to the handprints.
For Clara von Dohlen ’18, who helped to organize both this year and last year’s project, the event is about building a supportive community for survivors.
“We talk a lot about prevention, and we even talk about punishment, but often our communities – and I’ve definitely seen this at Mac – kind of treat people who’ve experienced assault as if they’ve died,” von Dohlen said. “It’s like you don’t belong anymore. And that’s so harmful for survivors.
“[The Imprints Project] is really just about reminding people who may need a community that there is a group of people [who] believe and support you, and [who] have been through a similar thing,” she continued.
Von Dohlen, who experienced sexual violence while studying abroad, said that, in the aftermath of the experience, her feeling of safety in the world was almost completely stripped away. The trauma can be incommunicable to those unfamiliar with its impact.
“What community does in this particular situation,” she said, “is reintroduce those feelings of safe connection.”
Von Dohlen was first inspired to get involved last year, when she became frustrated with the lack of resources available to her through the Title IX Office. She and a group of friends collaborated with Sexual Violence Prevention Program Coordinator Laura Linder-Scholer to create a display to build community and demonstrate the lasting impact of sexual violence.
“Their idea was to provide some sort of context for a way that survivors or people who have experienced any form of sexual violence – either staff or faculty or students – could engage in some sort of interactive art or narrative sharing,” Linder-Scholer said.
In addition to providing an avenue for survivors to form a community and speak about their experiences, the event was an opportunity to raise awareness about sexual violence on Macalester’s campus – a problem Linder-Scholer thinks is often overlooked.
“Macalester has a pretty impressive and positive level of engagement around this issue,” she said, “but there is still the perception that sexual violence doesn’t happen here.
“Sometimes people think that because Mac is so progressive in terms of gender issues and talking about things like consent, that we’ve solved the problem in ways that other campuses haven’t,” Linder-Scholer continued. “So it’s really important to acknowledge that, yes, sexual assault and violence do happen here.”
Abby Thomsen ’20, who participated in organizing the Imprints Project for the first time this year, also feels that Macalester’s liberal atmosphere hinders the the community’s ability to identify sexual violence as a legitimate problem on campus.
“I think it’s something people don’t acknowledge, that sexual violence affects Mac students,” Thomsen said. “We have this whole ‘Consent is Mac’ thing, which has sort of become a meme, and people just really like to push the issue away.”
In fact, sexual violence is no less likely to occur at small liberal arts colleges.
A 2014 study by The Chicago Tribune found that the three schools with the highest reports of rape per 1,000 students were Reed College, Wesleyan University and Swarthmore College – each traditionally progressive institutions with fewer than 3,500 students.
Thomsen, initially drawn to the project through her interest in the use of art to create social change, is optimistic about the event’s impact.
“I hope the Imprints Project raises awareness that this is an issue which is relevant to everybody,” she said.
At the event on Monday, Linder-Scholer introduced the project – thanking its organizers for shedding light on an issue often “shrouded in stigma, isolation and shame” and reminded the survivors present that they were supported.
“We see you, we hear you, we stand with you,” she said.
New Title IX coordinator, Timothy Dunn, also spoke, welcoming and showing support for the participants.
Afterwards, organizers read the anonymous survivor responses submitted online. For Linder-Scholer, the event was a success.
“As for our goal, we said that if even a few people show up, it will have been worth it,” she said. “I think for those people, it’s a powerful event.”
Von Dohlen hopes that, with the help of events like this, the Macalester community will learn to productively engage with issues of trauma.
“I hope when someone talks about trauma, people will not just inch away from it, or cringe or act like it’s untouchable or not engageable, because that can be a very traumatizing thing to have happen,” she said. “It’s really important for communities to be able to engage with survivors.”
Linder-Scholer believes that even a little bit of involvement from the Macalester community will make a big difference in the way the school approaches issues of sexual violence.
“We have a motto for bystander intervention,” she said. “We say that no one has to do everything, but everyone has to do something. It’s not fair, and it’s not realistic and it’s not effective to expect sexual violence work to be done only by the people who are directly impacted.
“My hope around the work that I do is to let folks know that there are so many ways to get involved, and that hopefully everybody will feel comfortable finding one.”