My Title IX Training Triggered Me
I was not thinking when I wrote my "No one prepared me for Post-PhD PTSD" post that nearly twelve thousand people would see my face, read my words, and not only not think I was crazy, but agree with me. It's been one of those whirlwind things that happens and lets you know you are never as alone as you may feel. The response to that article is the main motivation I have to continue sharing my experiences in the academy as a higher education professional (and as a writer, and storyteller). I want to say thank you to those of you who share my posts and special thanks to those who commented or messaged me privately. Your words of encouragement are like balm and help me feel less alone in my struggles. With that said...onward.
As part of every job in education I have ever held, there is a requirement of staff, faculty, and selected student leaders to go through some sort of sexual harassment, sexual assault and Title IX training. So the alert that my mandatory attendance at the training for my new institution came as no surprise to me. What was surprising was my reaction to it. The statistics of women who report versus those that don't sent me right back into my living room curled up on the couch as two police officers asked me the intimate details of my own story. Reminding myself that I was safe, and at work, that I knew these protocols and I could breathe through the discomfort of hearing sexual assault discussed as such a prominent and persistent problem on college campuses. On our college campus...
Our title IX officer rattled on delivering the survey results of a campus climate survey and some other administrators debated the semantics of her report. How many drinks was consider binge drinking? I could feel myself becoming annoyed. Angry that someone, anyone could be bothered to think about the specifics of a word on a survey that asked women to detail their experiences with intimate and personal trauma and violation. I wanted to stand up and scream that it did not matter how many drinks she had. I had been sober. It didn't matter what she wore, it didn't matter if she said yes and changed her mind, it didn't matter if she knew him for a year or 30-seconds. If at any point she said "NO", it should have been honored.
I felt the panic rise in my body and pulled out my phone to journal notes. I wanted to develop a workshop to talk to university leadership about how to have difficult conversations with compassion. I wanted someone in that room to acknowledge that there was a "me". That though we were staff and faculty, that we might have personal experience with the traumas that we are trying to help our students through. That our own personal healing, or lack thereof, impacts our ability or willingness to help our students. That somehow it was okay to have to sit through Title IX sexual assault training as a sexual assault survivor, be triggered and show signs of PTSD and that be part of our learning rather than a mark of shame or a catalyst for sympathy.
It occurred to me that often our work is so student-focused it can neglect the maintenance and well-being of those charged with the task of doing the work. At CSUSM, I was invited to talk to students about how to bring your whole self to your profession. I called the talk: Creating space at the table for your multiple social identities. I talked to students about identity negotiation; how I did the mental work of discern how safe it was to be Black or Fat or a Woman at any given time. How my assortment of identities influenced how I came to my work, and how I exercised leadership and more importantly how I came to affirm my own style as one that was valid and of use.
I ask myself if as a facilitator, if I were to speak about sexual assault or harassment, if I could do so with a level of authority and competency. Yes. I can. Also, it would come with a high emotional response. I tell myself that having a conversation about sexual traumas would be harder for me than, say, a conversation about race and race relations with law enforcement. Though both are charged topics because of my social identities and my relationship to the issues, the way I lead through these topics would be drastically different because of my experience with them. I tell myself that my emotional response is not bad, or unprofessional, it's authentic. To not shy away from the conversation even when my body trembles and my palms sweat is to reclaim my body and my Self as my own. To work as an advocate for students who have experienced this sort of trauma, and to have them see me in my imperfection, still struggling, still grappling, still affected...it gives them permission to exist in their own imperfect ways as well.
I know from the response of my other article that there are voices of higher education administrators that go unheard. That leadership is not always attentive to the needs of its constituency and that sometimes we have to learn to advocate for ourselves. I know this is why I am passionate in my writing and facilitation work about authenticity and challenging myself to question my paradigms, not accept things as they come, and to approach every task with compassion. I believe that as I get more opportunities to talk and lead women, and graduate students, and staff, and other populations of people who invite me into their spaces, that I can help people become more attuned to each other by learning to hear themselves. By learning to honor their own discomforts.
I don't know that I will ever have the opportunity to facilitate a title ix training. I don't know that anyone will ever employ me to give talks or lead discussions about sexual trauma, assault, or harassment. I don't know if I will ever have an audience looking to me to lead a conversation about a topic that is so incredibly raw, and sensitive. I do know that if ever I get the chance, I am going to take it. And I am going to lean into the pain, and I am going to give the statistics a narrative. I'm going to tell the story of how we help our students survive the threat and the trauma. I'm going to tell the story from my point of view as a survivor, as some one who can say "me too" because it's the one identity I cannot negotiate into submission and I am starting to believe that is for good reason. Because it forces me to be real, and to show up despite what my persona wants to do in the moment. What I am coming to trust is that, she who remains works dually in service of my students' learning but also and primarily in service of my self. When I lead from my heart, then and only then am I in true alignment with my purpose and it is from that space that I always want to work from, even if it makes my voice shake, and even if it makes my heart race. I, the truest me, remain.
Jessica Williams is a writer, speaker, and higher education professional with a commitment to intersectional social justice, authentic development, and the increase of leadership capacity and self-agency. To book her for writing, facilitation or speaking engagements, visit: www.JessicaJamese.com