Why I Burned My Tufts Sweatshirt To Demand Justice For Survivors

Monday morning, I demanded an overdue apology from Tufts University for their institutional failures of survivors of sexual violence. I wanted to make sure they knew I’d mean it. That’s why I decided to make the announcement about founding the organization Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture (SERC) with a bang.

So I went to my friend’s rooftop in Philadelphia, doused my old Tufts sweatshirt in lighter fluid, and set it on fire. I then urged other survivors to join in demanding public apologies from their academic institutions. I broadcast this first action of the #JustSaySorry campaign on Facebook Live.

While we are newly founded, the makings of SERC have a deep history. As Black survivors in the campus anti-rape movement, my friend and co-founder Kamilah Willingham and I have been frustrated by the limitations of focusing on law and policy around campus safety. (Just on Tuesday Kamilah called on her own alma mater, Harvard Law School, to Just Say Sorry for its handling of her sexual assault by burning her Harvard sweatpants.) We’ve realized that rules are meaningless if the people who enforce them still believe in rape myths and don’t believe that gendered violence is a problem.

While there’s a robust focus on organizing to improve societal response to campus sexual assault after the fact, it needs to be complemented by culture change work on the ground. So after an inspiring women’s pre-conference session at Netroots Nation, we decided to create the organization while in a St. Louis hotel room.

***

There’s a certain . . . je ne sais quoi about fire. It makes a statement that the other elements just can’t quite replicate: It’s destructive yet cleansing; powerful yet delicate, beautiful. That’s why I knew it was the only way to get rid of my old Tufts sweatshirt. The combination of the fiery, basic element with the new technology of Facebook Live felt perfect — the best way to make a statement.

I remember the first time I saw fire used as a form of protest. At the beginning of the film Sarafina!, I watched with both confusion and horror as South African students protested the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 — the latest law targeting Black students put in place by their racist, oppressive government — by lighting their schools on fire at night. Fed up with their whitewashed curriculum and the unfair treatment by their White teachers in apartheid, a few students snuck out at night to commit the act, which spurred more students to revolt in the infamous Soweto uprising that triggered a wave of international attention and staunch opposition to the racist violence of South African apartheid.

Back then, I was a young kindergartner who viewed the burnings as a form of vandalism. As a young Black girl born to immigrant parents from the Caribbean and East Africa, I was a staunch believer of the Church of Respectability Politics. I worked hard to get the best grades because I was raised to follow the rules made and enforced by my predominantly white educators. It wasn’t hard. I loved school. I loved the validation that the 100s and bright red As on worksheets gave me. They were proof that I was “good” — a smart young woman — and others saw it too.

My young self couldn’t understand why teenagers would take the chance to sneak out at night and destroy such a beloved institution.

Until now.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not about to commit arson. I know that burning Tufts University’s campuses down is not the correct way to go. Some people have joked that it’s justified: after years of abuse, I finally mustered up the courage to report my sexual assault at the hands of a fellow student to Tufts University — and they refused to do anything to even attempt to hold my assailant accountable. To add insult to injury, the school expelled me as my GPA tumbled southward as I struggled with untreated depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

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When I look back at my journal entries during my time on the Medford, Massachusetts campus, I am still struck by how tangible my pain and dismay show through my words.

“Okay today I have to f-ing re-edit my statement against [my abuser]. Ugh, last time it took me until like 3 in the morning to get to do it and by the end I was crying.

I spoke about it during my last counseling session. It made me cry. I sobbed for a little bit. I still feel like a wuss for letting that whole relationship still affect me so much. That I allowed so much pain to happen.
I f-ing hate Tufts. Biggest mistake of my life. Today in counseling I realized that Tufts has contributed A LOT to my current self-doubt and insecurities surrounding my relationship with [my abuser] and my confidence. They have constantly failed to make me feel protected or help me. They often give me the message that what happens to me isn’t “that big of a deal.” There’s just . . . a lot of history. And it was kinda mind-blowing when my counselor pointed that out.
f-ing school.”

Now, when I think about those South African students, I think I understand their anger.

Today, students in my father’s home country of Kenya — my home away from home — are burning down school dorms. Some say it’s partly in response to unfair treatment they endure in the name of education. This time, as an angry student living daily with the consequences of institutional neglect and betrayal — including a derailed academic career, a mountain of student debt, and the constant work to reaffirm my self-confidence and self-worth — I completely understand.

***

Tufts University was one of my first college choices. During my visits as a high schooler I was drawn to its claimed strong commitment not just to academics, but “human rights and democratic participation.” I’ve always known I’ve wanted to dedicate my life to changing the world for the better. So at the time, ultimately choosing to enroll there was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Tufts University finds it hard to practice what it preaches when it comes to the ethical treatment of survivors. To say they failed to lead by example is to put it mildly.

I’ve become increasingly self-conscious about how complicated my relationship with the university appears. The silence from them has a gaslight-esque effect: It feels so unbalanced, in fact, that it makes me have occasional glimmers of doubt about whether I even went to Tufts. While I may be best known for my affiliation with Tufts, the administration refuses to acknowledge that I exist. Administrators who failed to assist me after I reported my abuse — and later decided to expel me — literally derailed the course of my life. I cannot begin to tell you how painful that is. To have gone through something traumatic — a school ignoring/not caring/not believing that I was raped, kicking me out, and refraining from acknowledging my existence.

And you know what? I am ready to publicly share that the pain doesn’t just make me sad or drive me to work to make the world a better place. The pain makes me angry — an emotion I long feared to publicly express for fear of being dismissed as a victim who lacks credibility. But I realize that the policing of survivors’ actions is not something to conform to — it is part of the problem of rape culture. That is, in part, why Kamilah and I created SERC.

To truly create a world free of gender-based violence, we have to challenge and dismantle the current structures that allow it to happen. One way to do that is to show that the emotions of survivors do not prove whether someone was actually raped or not.

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Burning my old Tufts sweatshirt may seem harsh to some. It’s dramatic. I get it. But it’s the only action that feels fitting. I kept the sweatshirt all these years because I used to believe in Tufts and because I still believe in the values that they claim to stand for; I thought there was a small chance that they would one day do something. That’s why I’ve been speaking about my experience with them for so long during my years of anti-rape activism in speeches, media appearances, social media, writing, etc. — I expected better.

They tell us to expect better from them. But the sweatshirt burning is me essentially throwing in the towel. I no longer expect the right thing from them toward me. I see that it’s easy for the school to talk the talk instead of making meaningful action to show that they ever cared about me as a human being, or that they are sorry for what they did.

At the very least, though, they should say they’re sorry that a former student of theirs feels so forgotten and abused.

The inaugural burning of our #JustSaySorry campaign gives Tufts another chance: I am urging them to break the cycle of abuse. Acknowledging survivors is a necessary step in restoring trust in the community. When survivors — both present and future — see that the school cares about doing the right thing instead of just avoiding negative PR, they are empowered to come forward and rapists know that their actions will not be tolerated. Ignoring a survivor only continues the message received when they are physically and mentally violated: that they have no worth and no one cares about their well-being. Instead of ignoring survivors like me, I am calling for them to acknowledge me and the negative impact on my life by apologizing.

Tufts University has made improvements on their sexual assault policies since my days on campus. And I know the school doesn’t hesitate to mention their improvements and dedication to them. But it was still the first college in the history of the United States to be officially found in violation of Title IX.

If Tufts can enter into an agreement with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, then they can certainly do something as simple — but powerful — as recognizing me and just saying sorry.

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