I Can, We Can Speak

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Rabhi Bisla
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2013

There is a beautiful shift in communities when one is able to open the door for others to join heavily taboo conversations such as domestic violence and bullying. It is not commonly known that when women enter college, one in four women are raped or sexually assaulted on campus. This is such a crucial statistic, as the cycle of violence must end through education. Attention needs to be drawn to this severe form of bias-based violence and abuse. 54% of students reported that witnessing physical abuse at home leads to violence in school.
10 million children witness domestic violence each year in the U.S. Studies have shown that “witnessing violence by parents/caregivers is the strongest risk factor of children being violent. All it takes is for one person to bring up the conversation of domestic violence to normalize the feelings and bring in others to join. Violence at home causes violence and bullying with others. One person can stop the cycle. With a campus as busy as UCLA, I felt there was no better way to engage and advocate better than using art.

In July 2013, I was one of 15 South Asian university advocates and allies from across the country to attend SAALT’s 2013 Young Leaders Institute in Washington, DC. The Young Leaders Institute gives students the opportunity to come together to discuss and explore issues affecting the South Asian American community; engage in peer exchange; hone leadership skills; and learn strategies and approaches to social change. The 2013 Institute focused on bias-based bullying as a timely and extremely critical issue based on documented incidents in the community, as well as an identified need to build and strengthen bridges across communities. With the intensive training that YLI provided—including collaborative partnerships and allyship tools; the story of self, story of us, and story of now as  forms of empowerment and advocacy; and project planning— I was able to develop my project to achieve significant awareness around domestic violence and bullying on my campus.

My 2013 Young Leaders Institute project was entitled, I CAN Speak UCLA October 16th Day of Action. The goal of this project was to engage college students in an interactive art exhibit encouraging them to pledge against violence. On October 16th, 2013, the collaborative clubs joined me through the mentorship and support of A Window Between rabhi 1World’s I CAN WE CAN campaign to take over the campus in the largest art-as-activism campaign to ever take place against bias-based bullying and abuse. Our engagement campaign consisted of a massive 8 ft. x 8 ft mural that was painted by the talented Bruin alum Samira Mohammed with empowering “I CAN” statements such as “I CAN Un-learn,” “I CAN Survive,” and “I CAN Speak,” all visible from a mile and a half away. On their way to class, students were able to pause and take a picture pledging against domestic violence with a whiteboard. They were able to take the picture with a pre-selected prompt or were welcome to create their own statement. We had markers available for people to also sign the board in solidarity against abuse. Three photographers were present capturing these moments. Bru FEM Magazine, a leading campus women’s rights organization, and Daily Bruin, the main campus newspaper, covered the events of the day. I led individual empowerment workshops with many of the collaborating organizations to connect them to the I CAN WE CAN movement of empowerment and advocacy before the event. In these workshops they wrote letters to their abusers, saying everything they wished they could have said before but had found themselves unable to do. By releasing all those demons onto a blank canvas, they could finally exhale the trauma. Many people came forward about being survivors of sexual assault, incest, and rape in this intimate setting. Transitioning from the weighty feelings of “speaking” to an abuser, I had them write a letter to a survivor, with words they wished someone would have said to them to help support them in that hard time. These pieces are now displayed on the I CAN Speak UCLA Day of Action Facebook Page as an online gallery to give support to others as they realize they are not alone and they CAN thrive.

In order to lead a successful event, I needed supportive collaboration from the Domestic Violence Project of the American Medical Student Association, Indus, Bru FEM Magazine, Daily Bruin, Social Awareness Network Activism through Art, and Bruin Confidential on the UCLA Campus. Supporting organizations included members of the Pakistani Student Association and Muslim Student Association. Thousands of UCLA students interacted with information around bias-based bullying through the lens of domestic violence and sexual assault on Bruin Walk, the main walkway leading to all campus classes.

It took many meetings with my think tanks from the different organizations to allow for us to rabhi 2fine tune all details and ensure that the project ran smoothly. This project was crucial to me, as being in the domestic and sexual violence movement for many years has taught me that bullying comes in many different forms. It can be as small as bumping into someone on purpose, or backhanded compliments, or even as severe as cyber harassing. Perpetrators can cause serious physical harm, not to mention the psychological ramifications and fatalities. Those who hurt, hurt others and this campaign was essential to encourage hands-on participation and pledges against sexual violence and bullying, but more so awareness to perpetrators out there that they can stop the cycle of violence and they can heal themselves too.

I knew that some people would be uncomfortable being so visible if they were to join the conversation about such a taboo topic, and would have alternative methods of interaction on the Day of Action. We had a standing chalkboard with two prompts to encourage people to write about their experience with bullying and abuse and how they could make the world a better place. It was important to not only have individuals enter the conversation about their experiences, but to empower them to see that others can gain support, even if they are also going through the same trauma. There was also a typewriter placed in a location where they could unanimously write their responses to our prompt, “What has been your experience with domestic violence and bullying?”  To make this event even more visible, we also had theatrical narratives where there were three performances of white-masked individuals showcasing that bullying and abuse affects all demographics. The individuals performed in three high-traffic locations on campus, and one male UCLA student named Zain saw them twice. He emailed me on the Facebook page later than day and said:

rabhi 3“I couldn’t stay away from the performances. I was just so mesmerized. My dad beat my mom when I was younger, I got into a bad group of friends and resented my mom because he would beat me too. I used to beat on every kid in school and hated their perfect lives. I never thought I would make it into UCLA and I see your statistic on the ground that 60% of all males who commit murder killed the man abusing their mother and I am reminded of how there were so many times, so many times that I was so close…but I didn’t. I always walk away when I hear about bullying and now I can’t allow myself to walk anymore. I need to hear these stories, I need to hear that I’m not alone. I am no longer a victim, I CAN be an advocate.”

We later found out that two males and three females came out about being rape survivors by their abusive boyfriends and had the strength to speak out because they saw so many fraternities and sororities engaged in our photo station, because those that spoke out are in fraternities and sororities as well.

It is truly remarkable that the tools that SAALT gave me in just a few days allowed me to support even one person, but affected significantly more. The foot traffic of tens of thousands of UCLA students that saw the massive art as activism campaign all over campus and to be able to get powerful responses and support for this event was phenomenal. Gaining the collaboration of key medical organizations on campus as well as the Indian-Pakistani organizations in such a taboo topic as domestic violence and bullying is a rarity. I would never have been able to accomplish such a massive art as activism community engagement campaign if it were not for the support of A Window Between Worlds, the local donors in the community especially Anza True Value Hardware, and the thorough mentorship and planning support of SAALT. The ability to see that any grandiose idea has extreme feasibility once details are broken up and delegated, in turn creating a large network of support, was a crucial part of my SAALT fellowship training. It has been an honor to be a part of the SAALT Young Leaders Institute. I honestly feel like I have changed so much as a person since this summer and I owe it all to the amazing leadership of my SAALT family.
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Rabhi Bisla
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2013