c/o Johanna DeBari

c/o Johanna DeBari

Heading into its first full year on campus, the Office of Survivor Advocacy and Community Education (SACE) is looking to increase student awareness of the services it provides and continue advocating for survivors of sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence. SACE is staffed by Director Johanna DeBari, who started in her role last spring, and SACE Intern Rachele Merliss ’19, who started last fall. 

Prior to the creation of SACE, Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator/Therapist (SART) Alysha Warren played two important roles on campus as both a therapist in the Office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and a resource for survivors and people with questions about Title IX. The Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC), a nonprofit that provides free legal services to survivors in Massachusetts and Oregon, recommended that the University separate these two roles in order to better support survivors. The VRLC made this recommendation in the wake of the University’s firing of former Associate Dean of Students Scott Backer, who was dismissed from a boarding school in Vermont after sending inappropriate text messages to a former student. One of Backer’s responsibilities during his eight years at the University was handling sexual assault and misconduct cases.

SACE was created to serve as a centralized place where students can learn more about the Title IX reporting process, sexual assault and interpersonal violence, and survivor advocacy on campus.

“The office can connect people to different resources,” Merliss said. “If you go to the office, it’s not like you’re going to see a therapist in the office, but you’ll get connected to that resource.”

In an email to The Argus, DeBari described SACE’s role as a space where community members can learn about sexual and interpersonal violence and engage in conversations about violence, prevention, and survivor advocacy.

“By combining the work of advocacy and education, the work is synergistically done to best support survivors and change the campus culture: the advocacy work, informs how education programs are structured to be survivor-centered and trauma-informed, just as the education programming and messaging informs how the advocacy work is conducted in sharing resources and information with survivors,” she wrote.

Through its new website, blog, and Facebook page, SACE is hoping to reach more of the University community. DeBari discussed her goal this year of engaging with different groups and communities around campus.

“I’m also hoping to engage the Wesleyan community about conversations regarding what kind of community education programs surrounding interpersonal violence prevention and intervention they would like to facilitate,” she wrote. “I have my own ideas about relevant and important content, but if it doesn’t feel useful to the community, it’s not going to have as great of an impact. I hope to collaborate with students, staff, and faculty in creative ways to fulfill the mission of the SACE Office and help make Wesleyan a more trauma-informed and safer space for everyone.”

In terms of outreach, the Office collaborated with other campus groups on events during Sexual Assault Awareness Week last spring and is planning events for Intimate Partner Violence Awareness Month in October. It is also involved in WesWell’s The Wellness Experience series of events this month, and DeBari will be piloting a support group and workshop for survivors this fall alongside an advocate from the Women and Families Center. Merliss also holds office hours on Wednesdays from 1-2 on the second floor of Davison Health Center, and DeBari has an open-door office policy, meaning that people can drop by her office and speak with her if she is not already in a meeting.

DeBari commented on the response SACE has received from the University community.

“A theme of the feedback I’ve received has been gratitude for the work overall and a sense of peace that the services are available in a confidential way,” she wrote. “There has also been an acknowledgement that the creation of this office signifies that Wesleyan takes the issues of interpersonal violence, supporting survivors, and prevention education surrounding these topics very seriously.”

Her goal is for the Office to serve as an accessible resource for both survivors and the community at large who advocates for them.

“My hope is that the SACE Office becomes a space that the Wesleyan community benefits from: whether it is student-survivors getting access to options and information in choosing their path towards healing, or faculty, staff, and students learning about resources for supporting survivors, engaging in tools of primary prevention, or overall learning how to integrate themes of trauma-informed, survivor-centered support into their work at Wesleyan,” she wrote.

Merliss also described her hopes for SACE as it enters its first full year on campus, to continue educating community members about its services. She said that she and DeBari are here to help and can provide resources both for survivors and students looking to get involved in sexual violence prevention work.

“[We] really try to let people know [this] during orientation, but always there will be times when information like that slips through the cracks, so we really hope the SACE office can help strengthen our knowledge base as a community,” Merliss said.

Just last week, SACE partnered with WesWell on the We Speak We Stand program during first-year orientation. In an email to The Argus, Director of Health Education Sierra Fowler commented on her office’s work with SACE and how she has seen it grow since its creation last year.

The SACE Office and WesWell have a lot of overlap in the content that we educate the campus community about, so we work together quite often,” she said. “The SACE office has grown in leaps and bounds, finally being able to have a dedicated office for all the great and necessary work related to interpersonal violence prevention. With the SACE website recently being launched, we hope even more students will be aware of the office and get connected.”

Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19, the coordinator of Adolescent Sexual Health Awareness (ASHA), also discussed her group’s interactions with SACE and the supportive role it plays on campus.

“As a member of ASHA, the SACE office has been a really great resource,” she said. “They have been really great for helping to publicize our events and helping to put on events that relate to ASHA’s mission of providing comprehensive and inclusive sex education.”


William Halliday can be reached at whalliday@wesleyan.edu.

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