Advocacy and prevention course addresses underpinnings of interpersonal violence

An experiential learning course that offers students job skills and potential career training seems like a hot commodity. But Amy Kayon, instructor of a three-credit Portland State course which does just that, says that often, students are unaware of the course’s existence.

“It’s still gaining notoriety,” Kayon said of the Sexual Violence Prevention, Education, and Response course, which offers advocacy and violence prevention training to students. “It’s kind of like a best-kept secret right now. It’s all really new.”

This fall, Kayon, PSU’s Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Coordinator, will co-teach the course for the third time alongside Adrienne Graf, who works as an interpersonal violence advocate at PSU’s Women’s Resource Center.

Less than a year old, the course’s structure is continually undergoing permutations based on student feedback. But its mission remains the same, to educate students on the root causes of interpersonal violence and prepare them for one of two tracks: to become either volunteer peer advocates who respond to sexual violence or peer educators who try to prevent it.

Thanks to training from the course, PSU has been able to offer 24-hour advocacy support and bystander intervention/consent workshops for student groups since last spring term. Ideally, trained students from the course who wish to volunteer as advocates or educators will sustain these services for PSU students.

Peer advocacy, in this context, refers to support provided by one’s peers following an experience of sexual violence—be it helping survivors seek legal recourse or medical attention, or simply holding a safe space for them and listening to their story.

According to their websites, universities, such as Emory and Amherst, have peer advocacy resources for student survivors of sexual assault. What distinguishes PSU’s course from straightforward advocacy training, says Kayon, is its focus on the structural roots of violence in society.

In addition to covering standard advocacy training protocols, course administrators have “added a more academic, rigorous inquiry into the structure of how all this takes place and how interpersonal violence is experienced,” Kayon said. “That’s the nuance of our class. It’s not just can you respond [to interpersonal violence], but can you understand the context in which these instances are happening? Are we looking at systemic racism in our culture?”

“We want to prepare students to not just step into a system that has traditionally isolated and betrayed survivors, but know what structure they’re stepping into so they can be advocates for change within that system,” Kayon said.

Olivia Clarke, a PSU student entering her senior year, took the Sexual Violence Prevention, Education, and Response course the first term it was offered, in winter 2016. She signed up without a strong predisposition toward either advocacy or prevention, but during her fourth week, when the coursework split into two separate tracks, she chose prevention. Now, she is part of Illuminate, a volunteer student group providing bystander intervention and consent presentations.

“I liked the idea of going to the root of oppression and violence, as opposed to dealing with the immediate aftermath of it, which can be really emotionally taxing,” Clarke said.

Clarke recalls the coursework as informative and diverse. She remembered readings that varied from social work journals to anonymous blog posts by professional sex workers.

“I was impressed by how much they tried to bring intersectionality into the class,” Clarke said. “I feel like I learned a lot and gained a lot of perspective, from the readings and also from the guest speakers.”

Guest speakers in the class included a social worker and a sexual assault nurse examiner, both of whom helped students consider traumatic experience from a survivor’s perspective, Clarke said.

Leo Abbott, another soon-to-be senior at PSU, took the course the same term as Clarke, but chose the advocacy route. As a person of color who identifies as non-binary (gender neutral), Abbott said that they entered the class knowing they wanted to pursue advocacy and increase diverse representation in PSU’s advocacy resources.

For example, said Abbott, maybe a survivor would specifically want a queer advocate, or someone who speaks Spanish. As a Latino, queer, non-binary advocate, “I can provide representation for the different intersections that I occupy,” Abbott said.

Trained peer advocates are confidential, an attribute that educators do not share. As such, says Abbott, advocates are not mandatory reporters. They can help survivors file a complaint, go to SHAC for treatment, or simply be there to listen.

“If someone comes in and just needs to get something off their chest, we’re here,” Abbott said. “Our priority is connecting with them, making them feel safe and supported, and letting them know what options they do have.”

Both Clarke and Abbott said that, in both the class and volunteering, they found a sense of community and camaraderie.

“You’re all there for a solid purpose,” Abbott said. “It’s heavy content, but it pays off when you see a survivor getting to a safer place. And with other advocates, we make sure we all feel supported.”

This fall, the three-credit course (PA 409) will be offered on Fridays from 9 a.m.-12 p.m.