The Sexual Assault Resource Network (SARN) hosted a panel on April 19 with three members of last year’s Gray Shirt team. During the spring semester of the 2015-16 academic school year, the group effectively disrupted normalcy on campus by wearing gray t-shirts that read, “My college is protecting (my) rapist.” Madeline Wilson ’16 headed this movement and was joined by nine other seniors to challenge the St. Olaf administration on its failure to justly address cases of sexual assault on campus.
These ten students were effective in achieving their goals by attracting national attention to the college through media and blog posts on the movement’s website. In turn, there was an exponential increase in pressure from students, alumni and faculty directed at the administration to change the way the college handles sexual assault cases.
Wilson was not able to attend the panel, but she Skyped in to provide her reflections on the movement as well as what has occurred since the team’s graduation. Adrian Benjamin ’16, Mimi Arabalo ’16 and Maura Zindler ’16, all members of last year’s team, attended the panel which was held in the Center for Arts and Dance.
“The idea was to do something really rash and really out there that had more of a shock value… Just to really lay it out there and surprise people,” Wilson said. “Because of the culture at St. Olaf, that really worked in our favor.”
Wilson and the other panelists made it clear that most Gray Shirt team members became involved through word-of-mouth and their common experience of having their sexual assault cases mishandled by administration. Benjamin affirmed this idea, emphasizing that many Gray Shirt team members already knew each other’s names through an informal underground network of survivors, forming a group of ten.
“The reason this movement began was because one, the school wasn’t upholding their policies, and two, the policies needed to be changed to begin with,” Benjamin said. “To be let down in that regard, I didn’t know my footing, I didn’t know who to talk to. [The college] will only do something when they are held responsible, and it is so damn sh*tty.”
The panelists contextualized their use of organizational strategies within the present campus dialogue. They highlighted that what began as a protest of administrative mistreatment of individual students turned into an effort to hold the college accountable for the well-being of all students. The panelists repeatedly articulated the importance of transparency during similar movements, as they experienced unsatisfactory communication with administration before and after they went public with the movement.
When asked about the relationship between the Gray Shirt team and administration, Wilson said there was little communication or understanding.
“It was a lot of low-key bullying to begin with. I told administration probably two months beforehand what we were planning on doing,” Wilson said. “[they] basically said ‘Do what you want, I don’t care.’ On the day we were wearing our shirts I wrote [administration] a five-page letter explaining what we were doing. We received no response for a couple of days. They sort of refused to address us directly for a long time.”
Zindler referred to the movement as a “fly by the seat of your pants” situation, as each member of the team was fully immersed in the movement, as well as preparation for finals and graduation. Wilson and her allies were meticulous throughout, remaining transparent with the St. Olaf community and administration. Not only did the team bring a list of demands to administration, but it also did what Benjamin referred to as “exhaustive research” on other schools’ Title IX policies.
“I think that really blew them away, that we were able to utilize the education we received at their institution to school them on what they are paid to do,” Benjamin said.
Many considered the team’s use of media outlets to be the distinguishing factor of the movement. When the Star Tribune picked up the story, the campaign received nationwide attention and outrage from those associated with the college. The panelists emphasized that the use of media cultivated internal and external pressure directed at the college, and that once the college’s reputation and financial assets were at risk, adminstrators took imediate action.
“I noticed that things would happen after big media steps,” Zindler said. “It wasn’t till the Star Tribune interviewed us that [President David Anderson] agreed to meet with us.”
As awareness of the movement spread, outrage ensued, manifesting in the form of responses from the off-campus community – both monetary and otherwise. Not only did many donors withhold money, but some documented the exact reasons why they were doing so.
“When it comes down to it, we are money,” Benjamin said. “There are literally price tags over our heads. Organization and mobilization. We met routinely, we worked our ass[es] off staying up to the next morning strategizing. That’s really what we did and how it came to fruition.”
Affecting donors and the college’s reputation were crucial parts of the movement, resulting in the creation of a working group to assess the school’s policies surrounding sexual assault and provide recommendations for how to alter them. The panelists agreed that as of now, the recommendations are satisfactory, but it is increasingly important that the college is held accountable for following the recommendations and implementing them in the future.
“It really ignited a fire in me to have hope that something could come of something so terrible,” Benjamin said. “It’s unbelievable the hope [Madeline] instilled in all of us, and many of you.”