I have a secret list; you probably do too. It’s the list of people that you secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to be like when you grow up. Near the top of my list is Wanda Swan, Director of Emory University’s Respect Program. I have known Wanda professionally for a half a decade and admired her work at both Vanderbilt and Emory as well as her passionate commitment to supporting other campus-based professionals in her role as a founding member and current leadership member of the Campus Advocacy & Prevention Professionals Association (CAPPA). These accomplishments alone would earn my admiration and was one of the many reasons that EVERFI asked Wanda to join our national Sexual Assault Advisory Council.
But what puts Wanda on my wannabelike list is her absolute fearlessness in advocating for survivors, her laser focus on identifying system barriers to effective prevention and advocacy, her unwavering insistence that sexual violence is connected to racism and other forms of oppression, and the warmth, open-heartedness, and candor that she brings to her work on campus. It was no surprise to me, then, when the National Organization for Victim Assistance, (NOVA), awarded Wanda with the 2017 Exceptional Victim Advocate Award for Campus Advocacy. As one of the nominators for this award noted, Wanda’s ability to “navigate institutional politics with impressive savvy and nerve, making change on college campuses despite the hurdles that arise” is matched by her “warm, welcoming, empathetic demeanor coupled with exceptional skill” when working with survivors.
l sat down with Wanda at the NOVA conference this week to talk about her experience as a survivor advocate working in the college setting, and the challenges and future direction she sees for the field of campus-based survivor advocacy.
HRM: Everyone working in survivor advocacy has an origin story–how they came to this work. What is your story?
WS: I don’t have a degree in a specific content area related to advocacy; my master’s degree is in English [HRM: Me too!] with a concentration in teaching English as a Second Language. My goal was to travel the world and never have a permanent address. But I was late applying for an assistantship in my master’s degree, and the sexual assault services program was the only one that called me back. My entry into this work was initially to offset the cost of my tuition. But then something changed–a light bulb came on. And I woke up.
I became interested in looking at who is doing this [work] at the state level. I went to these meetings and learned about these black women at the Mississippi and North Carolina Coalitions Against Sexual Assault doing such bad-ass work. They were creating policy, they were challenging laws, they were applying for grants and funding. . . And I thought, “who gave you permission to do this?” They took it. They just took it. That was revolutionary to me. I am fat, black and nappy, and come from poor living conditions. It was revolutionary because I grew up in the poorest county of the poorest state in the country. Goodman, Mississippi. Holmes County. It is a place laced with a lot of narratives about inequities, disparities, and violence.
HRM: You have this amazing story of finding your place in the advocacy movement through the mentoring of empowered black women. And, your professional career has been spent working within predominantly white institutions (PWIs). How has that choice shaped your career–what have been the challenges?
WS: [laughing] Yeah! Honestly, the state of Student Affairs is challenging right now. Especially for those in the helping fields, and even more so for black women and others holding marginalized identities. In this current moment with so much open conflict on campus, we are getting the brunt of emotional labor. It is difficult sometimes to not feel tokenized.
HRM: We are speaking less than three days from the racial violence at the University of Virginia, and I have to imagine that this eruption of white supremacy is going to have an impact on our campuses this fall, and on our work to end sexual violence.
WS: Well, what I have learned from this is that the face of discrimination and oppression is getting younger, and it looks, sometimes, like our students. I think it is hard for elite PWIs who state that they are working to mitigate oppressive acts to actively carry those promises out when those are sometimes the same faces that hold a lot of power. And that is hard.
HRM: Something I’ve observed is that as institutions have seriously undertaken efforts to increase campus diversity and inclusivity, they have seldom seen the connection between those efforts and that of sexual violence prevention. What do you make of this?
WS: At the Respect Program at Emory, we’re trying to change that. We were known as the sexual assault advocacy and prevention office, but in the last year, we have started to widen our scope to also include other forms of trauma and violence that students are experiencing, that are impacting their lives. Our new slogan is “we end violence by ending oppression.”
Let me tell you about my theory of the iceberg of oppression. It’s one that I have been with my colleague, Raphael Coleman, on for the past year or so. For quite some time now, there has been a focus on sexual violence on campus. It’s the tip that is sticking out of the water, shining, and it gets the attention. But under the water is all of this other trauma that students come to us having experienced, or that happen to them on campus that is not as prioritized as sexual assault. All of this trauma and violence–related to racism, transphobia or homophobia, hazing. If we don’t address it, we are not doing our jobs. I have had students say to me, “Sexual assault? That is a white girl, sorority row issue. This is not my biggest issue.” So we need to expand our focus to recognize all of these harms along with sexual violence. We need to look under the water, and not just at what is sticking up.
But here’s the problem–right now, there are a lot of people working on the iceberg–hanging on underwater, chipping away. Working hard, with good intentions. But, we know that we can’t chisel the iceberg away–we have to melt it. And we’re going to melt it by working in much closer coordination across these issues, not making students have to choose what need gets met. So yes, I am going to work on sexual violence, and I am going to work on diversity too.
HRM: Is this what you see as a future direction for our field?
WS: I do! We have got to address these issues together. Patriarchy and white supremacy are negative for everyone. They harm everyone. We’ve got students coming in reeling from violence they have already experienced, and we have students who show up with toxic levels of privilege. I KNOW that violence happens at all levels, and I am going to have this conversation with our students, no matter how difficult. We have to take responsibility for our role in creating a better world and existence for those who come after us. By all accounts, I am not even supposed to be here; in this field as well as occupying the spaces I do to facilitate this message. But the privilege I have to sit here was given to me by someone who actively fought for me without knowing me. I often think about the various times throughout history that a black woman got up and put on her bra and marched for me. She faced violence head on and worked for a world that she could not imagine for herself, for me. I need to do this work to honor her.