This April, Swarthmore has seen a wealth of programming for Sexual Violence Awareness Month. Roughly two events have been held each week, including performances, lectures, workshops, and movie screenings. Yesterday, April 19, survivors of sexual violence shared their stories in the Scott Amphitheater at the “Voices of Healing” event. However, one annual event has been moved to a smaller role in April’s programming: The Clothesline Project.
Typically, The Clothesline Project, an event where survivors of sexual violence decorate a t-shirt about their experiences for display on a clothesline in front of Parrish, is held every April. However, due to concerns voiced by the community, the Title IX Prevention and Education Team made the decision to alter the Clothesline Project this year, instead displaying past shirts in a slideshow in Shane Lounge. Abigail Henderson ‘14 said that the impetus for altering The Clothesline Project and developing the Voices of Healing event came from conversations with survivors and other students on campus. “One of the past critiques of The Clothesline Project was that there wasn’t much of a space to be with people, and it’s sort of an isolating thing,” she said. “We wanted to provide some closure after that, where people can come together.”
The Clothesline Project first came to Swarthmore in the spring of 2006, organized by Alex Lim ‘07, Patrick Rock ‘09, and Nicole Belanger ‘08. While the t-shirt concept has largely remained unchanged, the project has varied from year to year in both form and what events accomplish it. According to organizer Ally Grein ‘10, some years featured collection discussions or days of support where allies would wear white ribbons. According to Grein, the project grew every year, beginning with 50 shirts but reaching nearly 150 by its third iteration. The group planning the project also expanded, said Grein: during its second or third year, fraternity brothers began to help plan the project, an effort which would eventually morph into DU’s annual handprint pledge.
Grein said that campus reactions to CLP are usually varied and complicated. “’Popular’ is not the right word for it, but neither is ‘unpopular,'” she said. “CLP is a lot of things to a lot of different people—empowering, liberating, triggering, depressing. It runs the gamut. […] Even the people who had positive feelings about CLP, such as myself, struggled with it.”
These struggles are what led to changes project from year to year. According to Grein, in different years the project was shortened from four days to five and moved to Upper Tarble to minimize triggering students or shifted to the fall to avoid displaying it before finals. According to Henderson, concerns have been raised that the project’s centralized location would trigger students who had experienced trauma, especially during an already stressful time of the year. Concerns were also raised about the project’s color code as there were different colored shirts that signified sexual assault, incest, intimate partner violence, and other types of sexual violence. “Determining yourself based on your method of victimization felt weird to some people,” said Henderson. “But those same things felt empowering to other people, so it’s not an exact science.”
Hope Brinn ‘15, an annual participant in The Clothesline Project, said she found the project empowering because it is “not a dialogue, it’s a monologue,” an experience most people cannot often have on this campus, where students are “so focused on debating and problematizing everything.” Brinn said she found the idea of moving or canceling the project due to concerns about triggers “troubling,” saying that “the consequence is that we’ll be reducing channels for survivors to communicate about their experiences and silencing some important discussions that always happened during ‘Clothesline Week.’ […] The way to solve sexual assault is not to stop talking about it,” she said. “Rape is happening all the time whether we talk about it or not.”
Grein agreed, saying that she respects any changes made to meet the needs of Swarthmore’s current survivor community, she does believe that “CLP is important and valuable, [and] I think that a campus wide event/discussion of any kind dedicated to this issue is going to be triggering. There is no ‘good time’ to have CLP, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen. […] If we stop talking about these people and these issues, we risk forgetting them, and I would hate for that to ever happen.”
Henderson agreed that “you want to make sure the message is everywhere so everyone sees it, but you don’t want put triggers everywhere. Balancing that is one of the hardest things, I think, about this work.” Nina Harris, Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate, said that another motive for hosting Voices of Healing was moving the conversation surrounding sexual violence past awareness to a “more active voice [and] an opportunity for people to actually hear […] and attach that to real people in the community.” Harris stressed that if The Clothesline Project was the only April programming, moving it to a less central location may be troubling, but this year there is “so much going on, the awareness is much more present.”
According to multiple attendees, Sunday’s event was a success. Roughly 50 community members gathered in the amphitheater, while eight speakers shared their experiences and reflections. While The Clothesline Project’s fate is still up in the air, Harris and Henderson emphasized that programming would change each year to meet student’s needs. This may include a rally march in the fall, said Henderson, and The Clothesline Project may return to Magill Walk or another location. Planning these events is about “both/and,” said Harris. “Not either/or.”