What has your journey after Williams looked like?
My senior year, there was a homophobic incident in Mission. I was on the swimming team for my first three years at Williams and that had taken up a lot of my life. I was also the chair of the board at the Women’s Center, but swimming was taking a lot of time out of my schedule. I loved the swim team and loved the support network, but ultimately I felt like I was missing something and not contributing enough to the Williams community in a meaningful way because I couldn’t spend time doing activism.
After the homophobic incident occurred, I was walking across campus from the gym, and I ran into Justin Adkins who was the queer life coordinator. He looked at me and said, ‘they need you. I don’t care what you’re doing, you need to go to Hardy because it’s about to blow up.’ I said, ‘I can’t, I have to go to swim practice.’ He said, ‘fuck swimming – this is much more important. Has anyone ever told you that swimming is optional?’
I realized at that point that no one had ever told me that swimming was optional – it was something I’d done my whole life.
I went to class. I left class. I went to my coach’s office and said, ‘thanks for a great three years, but I quit,’ and I walked out and never went back.
Within about two days, we managed to mobilize a large percentage of the student body.
It was a time when we had an interim president, and the whole administration seemed to be in limbo. We didn’t hear anything from the president, and I felt like he was letting the student population down and saying that the actions were unacceptable. I told the dean’s that the President needed to be back on campus that night. They said he was traveling, and I said, ‘I don’t care where he is. Either he’s back on campus tonight or I’m going to the New York Times with this story.’ He was back on campus that night. I issued the demands for the students at Hardy House, which were gender neutral housing options, having a full-time gender and sexuality resource center, having a full-time staff member dedicated to helping women and LGBT students on campus, and a tenure track women’s and gender studies position.
By the end of the year, we had all of our demands met. That’s when I realized that if I demand things, I can get them. I was really excited about that possibility, and I knew I was graduating, but I thought, ‘this is what I want to be do with the rest of my life. I want to be an activist.’
After Williams, I went to Amsterdam for graduate school in comparative women’s studies. I spent a year traveling all over Europe doing research and learning non-profit management skills and how to apply feminist ethics to your work.
I moved back to New York and worked on empowering folks who had survived different kinds of disasters to give back through volunteerism. I started my own youth service learning program from a larger organization, which was phenomenal, but it was also narrowly focused. I started looking for more opportunities to do cool stuff with feminist activism.
Justin emailed me a link to a board application for a non-profit in New York called SAFER (Students active for ending rape). I applied and ended up on the board as the communications coordinator. When I first started, SAFER was the only organization focusing on sexual assault and empowering students to create change on their campuses. In the first two years that I was on the board, the issue of sexual assault has exploded. So many students were stepping up and saying that they weren’t willing to accept the status quo. I got that feeling I got when I quit the swim team that day, which was, ‘I need to be a part of this – I can be a leader in this.’
I threw myself into my work at SAFER. I decided I wanted to focus on sexual assault as my issue. I ended up leaving my job with the intention of figuring it out and sustaining myself with some non-profit consulting gigs on the side. I needed to find a job that I was passionate about that connected my interests in feminism and the skillset that I’d learned with fundraising and project management to create more change in the space.
In April of last year, I got hired at Sexual Health Innovations and our mission is to develop technology that enhances sexual health and wellbeing. I’m director or development and operations, and we are building the nation’s first third-party sexual assault reporting system that’s trauma informed and survivor centric. We’ve been lucky to get support from activists and survivors and the large organizations in the country around the work. We’ve been in the New York Times and have presented at the White House. It’s helping change the way we talk about sexual violence on college campuses and opportunities for prevention and intervention that we didn’t think about in the past.
In the last year, the work I’ve done on this issue has grown by leaps and bounds. I was elected chair of the board at SAFER. I’ve been consulting on federal legislation that Senators Gillibrand and McCaskill have brought to the table around campus sexual assault. It’s been a weird feeling to know that in less than five years since I graduated from Williams that I went from walking into Hardy that day to someone who is referred to as one of the go-to people to talk to about campus sexual assault legislation.
I think my story really speaks to the fact that if you’re willing to take risks and willing to put yourself out there, you can pretty much achieve what you want to achieve.
What does your day-to-day look like now?
In my role at Sexual Assault Innovations, I manage all of our fundraising. I manage all of our money and do a lot of our business strategy. I also manage all of our interns and our hiring. On a weekly basis, I might be writing grant letters. I might be having calls with potential donors. I might be doing contract negotiations with donors. I might be doing accounting. I might be managing our interns and volunteers. I’ve been lucky to be on a small team of three where my opinion and my voice matter and has a daily impact on the course of the organization.
In addition to that work, in my role at SAFER, I’m managing the board and helping to oversee the different operations of that organization.
You were interested in women’s issues from freshmen year on. Did you know that sexual assault was one of the issues you were most drawn to?
Not initially. I think the issue of campus sexual assault is something that evolved over my time at Williams. I unfortunately had numerous friends who were sexually assaulted while at the college. Watching them go through what they went through and seeing how what was happening at one college was not an isolated incident has driven that interest. I’ve always had an interest in policy – I’ve always had an interest in policy from an activist perspective. Campus sexual violence is something that flew under the radar for a while and is finally coming to a head. It’s been fascinating to see that evolution from when I was at Williams as something that you knew happened but wasn’t really talked about openly to what it’s become today.
I’ve been really inspired by Williams – Williams has done a phenomenal job of attacking this issue. Dean Bolton has been wonderful in addressing the issue and has made it a huge centerpiece of her tenure as dean, and they hired a new director of sexual assault prevention last year who has been great at driving efforts at the college.
How do you view your own role within the movement?
It’s sort of a multifaceted role. On a day-to-day with Sexual Health Innovations, I’m making sure that we can fund technology that intervenes in sexual violence and making sure that our organization has the funds to create cool tech that will support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. From me as a person position, a lot of the work I do is focused on policy, and I really like that work. I’m passionate about how we can use policy to create change on college campuses. Because I’m a little further from my college career, a big role I’ve taken is mentorship. I will spend multiple hours a week with students on campus, helping them think through different challenges and helping them get access to the tools and resources they need to create change.
How do you view the tradeoff between working on the issue you want to address versus working in an organization that puts you in a position to have an impact?
It’s challenging. At my first job, my politics were often in conflict with the mission of the organization. While it wasn’t officially a political organization, I was often coming into contact with folks who did not think that gay marriage should be legal or that women were equal to men or that sexual violence was an issue. That was really challenging for me, and I realized that I was never going to succeed working in an organization like that. I joined the SAFER board to have an outlet, but it was only a few hours a week.
It can be challenging to find your place within a larger organization and find an organization that aligns with your values. A lot of that requires research and an understanding of who you’re going to be working with, what the organization’s ultimate mission is, what’s the organizational culture like.
When you were looking for new jobs, did it have to be sexual assault or could it have been any number of women’s issues that you cared about?
I looked at the broad spectrum of things that I was interested in. There was so much work being done in gay marriage. I thought, ‘what was the big issue that was left to be tackled?’ I think violence against women in all of its forms is the most underfunded. Particularly around campus sexual assault, the people who are doing the work on the ground don’t have salaries. People are doing it because they are passionate about the issue, and they know that something has to change. They’re willing to go into debt because they care about an issue that affects them and affects millions of women. I wish there was more funding for them and that’s my task everyday to figure out how to get the right partners to get projects funded.
Did you have a sense when you were at Williams that you wanted to do more activism?
The summer between junior and senior year, I won a travel fellowship and went to Amsterdam. I didn’t swim that summer, and it was the first time in my life that I’d taken that much time out of the pool. It was strange – I realized that there was life outside of smelling like chlorine all the time. As time wore on, I realized that I loved the swimming community, but that swimming was dictating a lot of other things in my life. I wasn’t going to the Olympics, and I had to start thinking beyond Williams. It got to a point during senior year that every time I got in the pool I was thinking about what else I could be doing that better matched my passion.
What advice would you give to a Williams student preparing for life after graduation?
Know who you know because by knowing whose in your network, you’re going to know what options are available to you, and you’ll be better able to find cool opportunities that are outside of the general track that Williams tends to push people on. Leveraging your Williams network is so important.
My other advice is to figure out what’s important to you because if you know what’s important to you personally, you’re going to find a career path that’s also meaningful. Some alums just need to find a job to support themselves after graduation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find volunteer opportunities that will help you find a job down the road that you actually are passionate about. Look for mentors – whether it’s someone at Williams or not. There are people out there who are ready and willing to help you.
I’m also naturally a risk taker so I’m going to tell people to take risks and jump in headfirst and see what works out. If you’re afraid of taking risks, you’re never going to know what other possibilities exist. Everybody’s got to make rent and pay off student loans, but you can make it work and do something you care about.
We’ve created a risk-averse generation because we have so much student loan debt and the cost of living is so high. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of talent is being shifted towards more traditional sectors when there are opportunities for innovation in other spaces.
You can make money being a professional activist. Sometimes it means not making as much money as your peers, but if you’re activist inclined, the amount of money often doesn’t matter as much as long as it pays your bills. It’s important to know what you’re worth. I realized early on that I was giving people a lot of great ideas for free and really you should be paid for that. A lot of activist burnout comes from feeling like you’re underpaid and undervalued. A lot of times young people suffer from impostor syndrome where they know they have a good idea, but because no one’s told them to go do it, they question whether they’re really qualified to go for it.
How have you come to define success?
I’ve always been much more competitive with myself than with others. If somebody tells me that I can’t do something, I get fired up to prove them wrong. Even if I fail epically, at least I tried.
If I can wake up in the morning and know that when I go to bed that night that something I do that day will have a positive effect on somebody else than I know I will have a successful day. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re so used to getting immediate feedback like you do in school with grades.
Activist burnout is so rampant because you’re fighting this big system, and you don’t know if you’re actually making an impact. We need to revise the way we think about success, and Williams needs to revise the way we think about success. If we had more opportunities for students to realize that what we’re doing socially actually has a real impact, students might be more inclined to focus on social change.