All of us at the U.Va. Women’s Center wish to express how moved we are by the courage of Morgan Harrington’s family, and the compassion with which our Charlottesville community responded to the call for support and help during Morgan’s disappearance. Some of us participated in the search, or were involved in the campaign for her recovery; we all hoped for a positive resolution. Our deep condolences go out to Morgan’s family and close friends at this difficult time. We hope that the joy that she brought you in her brief life will eventually bring relief to your heart. In her memory, we will recommit ourselves to our goal of working toward a world free of violence and oppression. We join others in working to shape a world in which women and children and men all can live lives full of possibility, joy, and fulfillment.
We are acutely aware of how Morgan’s disappearance and lonely death have left a pall of fear and helplessness over our community. In particular, women in Morgan’s age group, who see themselves in one way or another reflected in her life, feel unbalanced and worried that the University of Virginia is no longer the safe haven that it had been.
But U.Va. and Charlottesville have never been as safe as many believed. The fact that the person or persons who murdered Morgan may live among us only underscores that we cannot know the darkness that exists in the hearts of others, even in our neighbors.
This does not mean that we should become suspicious of everyone around us, but it does point to the fact that trust must be earned, even by our peers. We were born with an instinct for survival, and it is vital that we pay attention to what our inner voice tells us: that it is definitely okay to be impolite if it means attending to our own safety, even if that means feeling embarrassed or inconveniencing someone or walking away from someone we like. Women, know that you have tremendous strength and resilience, and that you are capable of defending yourselves when threatened.
Ultimately, reinforcing safety means taking care of one another. Watch out for your friends and keep their safety at the forefront, especially if they are incapable of making sound decisions. We live in a culture that promotes individuality, but in truth, we are part of a community. Harm against one person results in harm against all. Violence damages the threads that bind a community together: trust, compassion, respect, and responsibility to one another.
It would be nice to be able to offer a list of simple safety strategies and claim, “follow these and you will be safe.” But this would only promote a lie. Women have been resisting violence for centuries, and yet violence against us persists. Resistance is critical. Taking care of your friends is crucial. Protecting yourself by listening to that inner voice is deeply important. But even these practices do not always change the conditions that promote violence against women.
The responsibility to end gendered violence is not ours alone. We honor the men who stand up and speak up in the face of abusive sexism. May other men join you: Commit yourselves to speak out about violence against women. Pay attention to circumstances that foster violence and change them. Participate in the kind of social justice work that can lead to the dismantling of sexism, racism, homophobia, and other oppressions that allow people to view others as less than human. Acts of sexist violence, whether committed by one university student against another in an apartment bedroom; by a predator against a vulnerable, lone woman; or by an army against the women of a community are pieces of a continuum of violence that tear the world apart. The power to end gendered violence is largely in your hands.
- Claire Kaplan, Director of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services