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Take Back the Night Week rally draws large crowd, offers message of hope

Events for the annual Take Back the Night Week ranged from informative Q&As with the “How to Date a Survivor” panel and “Sexual Misconduct Board Mock Trial” to community building with the “Open Arts Slam” and the “Rally, March and Vigil,” eventually ending with a “Day of Healing and Wellness.”

Organizers say hundreds of people attended the “Rally, March and Vigil,” the largest turnout they have seen in years.

“I can’t even describe how proud I am of so many people,” said U.Va. Women’s Center intern Sandra Menendez, who helped plan the rally.”[I am] proud of Annie Forrest [who planned the panel and spoke at the rally], I am proud of Emily Renda and Nia Bentall with their experiences at U.Va. and coming to be the Sexual Assault Leadership Council co-chairs […]”

The Women’s Center, the SALC, student organizations, the University’s Sexual Misconduct Board and the Office of the Dean of Students worked together in the planning and execution of the week’s events. Claire Kaplan, director of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services at the Women’s Center, recognized the initiative of the students.

“[Take Back the Night Week] is a testament to the University of Virginia students that we’ve been able to do this every year,” Kaplan said at the rally.

Learn more about Kaplan's experiences with student activists at the University by visiting this link.

Menendez, along with other interns, aimed to include a “diversity of speakers and student groups so they each had their own kind of pulls for people who wanted to support them and support the issue.” In speaking out against sexual violence, the rally’s perspectives included: families of victims, survivors, local resources and performance groups.

The first speaker was Trina Murphy, great-aunt of Alexis Murphy. The Nelson County teenager was last seen at a gas station in August 2013, and the suspect of her abduction and murder will go on trial this May.  Trina Murphy advised the audience to always be aware of their surroundings.

“I don’t want people to live in fear, but I want you to live in awareness,” she said.

Gil Harrington, mother of Morgan Harrington, also spoke at the rally. Her daughter was abducted and murdered after a concert at John Paul Jones Arena in 2009, with no suspect found.

“Criminals are creature of habit [… ] Do not give them the opportunity […]” Gil Harrington said, advising the audience to “buddy up,” get to know neighbors and participate in the community.

During the rally, Menendez noticed repetition of the statistic “one in four college women” experience sexual violence but each speaker had a different interpretation. Ultimately, there was “always a message of hope […]” Menendez is a survivor of intimate partner violence.

Annie Forrest, third-year student, newly elected vice-president of One Less and survivor of sexual violence, mentioned Menendez in her speech. Forrest explained how Menendez once told her that “when you come out on the other side, […] it will feel like you swallowed the sun.” Forrest discovered that this didn’t just mean being happy again, it meant being “on fire from the inside[…]” The conclusion of her speech was met with rousing applause from the audience.

“[…] If I had to pick one lesson I’ve learned from it all, we don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we sure as hell get to choose what we make of it and I’m choosing to make my story beautiful and I hope that you all do the same,” Forrest said.

Following Forrest, representatives from the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, Shelter for Help and Emergency, Charlottesville NOW and The Women’s Initiative gave their support. In addition, U.Va. acapella groups performed uplifting songs like ”Bright Morning Stars are Rising” and “Waterfalls.” During the intermission, students from the Vagina Monologues performed an eye-opening, gripping piece that compiled song lyrics from Jay Z, Eminem and Robin Thicke, revealing the kind of offensive language ingrained in society.

Lastly, spoken word artist Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai performed pieces that focused on empowerment, showcasing “Real Women,” her grandmother and the concept of pursuing “Weapons of Mass Creation.”  Tsai emphasized that the “arts is such a great place to let those feelings out” because the “[…] blank page was ready to accept anything […]” when she was going through her own struggles.

The following day, as part of the “Day of Healing and Wellness,” Zen-Yie Tsai held a workshop at the Women’s Center. Tsai made the art more accessible and cathartic by starting with discussion regarding each participant’s background in writing and performance, and then getting into physical warm-ups, word associations and free-writing.

Another form of artistic expression the Center offered for the “Day of Healing and Wellness” was a glass art workshop at The Glass Palette, 1304 E. Market St. Suite W, in which survivors could break glass and fuse broken pieces into something new and beautiful. Attendants of this event commented on how necessary it was to do something relaxing after such an emotional night.

The Center supplemented the day with kick-boxing and yoga, as well as the option to speak with counselors or relax in the newly decorated “Room to Breathe” area. This was the first year the Center offered this special day of recovery.

By: Agnes Filipowski

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