I Can, We Can Speak

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.

Rabhi Bisla
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2013