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GRC aims to prevent violence

Jenn Metz | Monday, March 2, 2009

Notre Dame’s Gender Relations Center (GRC) has created the Violence Prevention Initiative to galvanize students to work toward stopping violence.

The Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) is a combination of both educational and preventative programs that lists raising awareness about violence in the local community, increasing understanding about global violence, promoting the healing of survivors of violence, raising funds for local non-profit agencies invested in violence prevention and serving as a flagship for violence prevention at other Catholic colleges and universities as its main goals.

The most prominent component of the VPI is Sexual Assault Awareness Week, which was held from Feb. 22 to March 1 and included events such as Notre Dame Take Back the Night and the Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention student forum.

The establishment of the VPI has been a long time in the making, Heather Rakoczy Russell, the founding and current director of the GRC said.

When the GRC first opened its doors, Rakoczy Russell, the then-rector of Pangborn Hall, said there was a situation on campus “where there were a lot of pockets of people doing work on these issues,” she said, “but no one organized place where this was happening.”

During its first few years, those working at the GRC spent time trying to identify the players doing work on campus in relation to violence prevention, identifying groups like student government, Men Against Violence, idND, Feminist Voice, the Progressive Student Alliance and CORE Council.

The GRC, which falls under the Office of Student Affairs, works with other campus offices, like the Counseling Center, the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education, Health Services, Notre Dame Security Police and Campus Ministry, addressing violence issues in one way or another.

“There came a point where we decided we probably could be doing more and certainly in a more cohesive fashion,” Rakoczy Russell said. “If there’s one rape on campus, there’s one rape too many.”

The aspect Rakoczy Russell said she is most proud of is that a student, one of her former residents, created the GRC. Many of the initiatives taken on in the GRC today are brought about by students.

The Firestarters, a group of undergraduate students who volunteer at the GRC, “help to really keep a pulse on what’s going on in the student body,” she said.

In 2003, Kaitlyn Redfield, then a senator from Pangborn, was interested about whether or not the University had an office to address relationships, gender and sexuality.

After completing a study of top-20 national universities, she found that all of the formerly all-male institutions established women’s centers or rape crisis centers when women first matriculated into the universities in the 1970s.

“We were 30 years behind the curve,” Elizabeth Moriarty, assistant director of the GRC said. “They thought of what would be the next wave – not just a women’s center, but a gender relations center.”

Her resolution to instigate the opening of such a center on campus passed unanimously through the Campus Life Council; the GRC opened officially in the fall of 2004, with Rakoczy Russell serving as both Pangborn rector and director of the GRC.

In September, Rakoczy Russell and Moriarty sat down with five students and asked them two questions: were current efforts enough, and were they efficacious?

“We had forthright, honest and helpful conversations and established what the GRC and the University as a whole could be doing differently,” Rakoczy Russell said.

Of the five major goals of the VPI, the one that hadn’t been touched by previous efforts was turning Notre Dame into a flagship for other Catholic institutions, she said.

“If we really did this right, its something that could and should be replicated at other Catholic schools,” Rakoczy Russell said.

“We wanted to do things that were organic to Notre Dame, building on what’s already happening,” she said, naming the production of “Loyal Daughters and Sons” as an example of something unique to the University that the GRC could share with other schools.

The GRC hopes to create a fuller proposal for the VPI in the future, including “a curriculum that would run the entire gambit of the academic year, featuring something every month,” Rakoczy Russell said.

The monthly curriculum would exclude December, she said, due to the final exam and winter break schedule.

The VPI has three remaining initiatives this spring: a writing workshop Mar. 21, an experiential learning retreat Mar. 28 and a festival on South Quad in April. The GRC also plans to participate in South Bend Take Back the Night, scheduled Apr. 23 during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The events, which mainly focus on story sharing, are organized on “the assumption that everyone has a story in their lives that needs to be heard by other people.”

“It’s important for building a healthier community,” Moriarty said.

The theme of VPI is based on the Scripture passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which includes the verse “a time to heal.” Rakoczy Russell said organizers didn’t want the VPI to be seen as a series of ad hoc events, so they chose to utilize the Scripture as a unifying theme.

The names of most events either derive directly from the passage or are titled in the spirit of the passage, like “A Time to Write,” the name for the writing workshop, she said.

Sunday’s residence hall and Basilica of the Sacred Heart Masses included a distribution of literature on the VPI and the GRC to help raise awareness, bringing Sexual Assault Awareness Week to a close.

In the past, Notre Dame has held a Sexual Assault Awareness Week during the month of April, but moving it to February has its benefits, Rakoczy Russell said.

“Students can process and be a part of a community of support before the go their separate ways for summer vacation,” she said. “Sometimes, the most poignant part … it ends up being the first time survivors tell their stories out loud. They need that community.”