At Columbia University, the students of the anti-rape activist group No Red Tape were growing frustrated. The school’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, is the highest paid president out of 497 colleges, making $4.6 million per year, and the school is planning to build a $7 billion new upper Manhattan campus area called Manhattanville. Locating the funding at a school with an endowment of $9.2 billion to extend the hours of the campus rape crisis center to include weeknights and weekends (when rape is more likely to occur) and pay the crisis center volunteers had failed. The group only encountered resistant and unmotivated administrators toward improving student health services regarding sexual assault; this, even after 2015 graduate Emma Sulkowicz helped bring this collegiate health epidemic to the forefront of U.S. national news.
To add insult to injury, the school’s student council found the budget for three-ply toilet paper.
Not giving into failure, No Red Tape reached out to the art activism group Guerrilla Girls Broadband for help.
Guerrilla Girls Broadband (GGBB) is a sister branch of the famous activism group Guerrilla Girls, Inc., who first brought attention to sexism in the art world in the 1980s. Unlike the Guerrilla Girls, GGBB focuses on outside-world women’s issues and embraces feminism’s intersectionalism and modern technology. Both still wear the signature gorilla masks to honor dead women artists and, originally, to also protect members against being professionally blacklisted in the art world. Appalled by what was happening on U.S. campuses, the GGBB designed a college street-art poster campaign, #GGBBCampus, inspired by classic Guerrilla Girls protest posters to help combat the issue.
The inaugural program has visited three colleges in the past five months: Stonehill College (MA), Oberlin College (OH) and Columbia University (NY). GGBB creates a customized visit to address the specific student needs regarding sexual assault with a focus on the workshop. At Stonehill, GGBB dispelled basic misconceptions about rape and feminism. At Oberlin, a predominantly white campus, the event highlighted rape and Black Lives Matter. At Columbia, it aimed to challenge institutional power and policies. #GGBBCampus program gives students an artistic stage for their distinct voices of to be heard while educating students how to use art and humor as an effective activist tool.
Humor is an unlikely key component in the workshop or activism in general. The original Guerrilla Girls are famous for using it to address serious issues, an avant-garde activist approach when they started in 1985.
Showing students how to effectively use it is no easy task.
Humor can seem like an unlikely strategy or even an unwelcomed one, especially if someone has ever been the victim of sexual assault. However, smart comedy is a tool more commonly used by a new generation of feminists and concerned citizens (Lady Parts Justice uses it to address reproductive rights). It can also be a cathartic outlet for necessary personal expression. While students are not studying for majors that will lead them to the Comedy Cellar in New York, GGBB teaches students how to identify comedic, activist fuel like personal truths, fact-based arguments (from credible resources that are Chicago-style cited—this is college after all) and sharp, absurd observations. A great example of this is Columbia having the budget for three-ply toilet paper but not for better rape center hours (Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade calls this unusual twist “game”). GGBB guides students to bravely and constructively frame their ideas so that they don’t exploit or offend anyone, too. The aim is to use well-crafted humor and intelligence to create positive calls to action that will hopefully make a tough topic more approachable, lower an audience’s hostile defenses, drive a salient point and be a cathartic tool for survivors.
School administrators do not always appreciate this stark honesty. Before the GGBB poster event, the president of Stonehill College and his colleagues, fearing GGBB’s pro-abortion beliefs, met more than a handful of times to find an excuse to cancel the activist group (Stonehill is a Catholic college). In a formal letter to the college, GGBB said, “We acknowledge that the Guerrilla Girls Broadband may not share the same views on abortion as Stonehill, but we believe by putting aside our differences, the more important need to address rape and sexual assault on campus can be met. Our intention is to come with open arms and focus solely on sexual assault, offering your students much needed support in a creative and safe environment.” GGBB agreed to not mention abortion and their abortion-related projects unless asked directly.
Regardless, days before the event, the school held one more, but this time, secret meeting with the school’s lawyers in a final effort to “disinvite” the group; the organizing professors and department heads discovered the trick just hours before and joined uninvited to defend GGBB.
The lawyers allegedly argued that GGBB had violated their verbal contract by failing to mention they were the Broadband group and not the Guerrilla Girls, Inc.—a completely false accusation, nor reasonable grounds for banishment. The professors argued that an excellent college education included teaching students how to coexist peacefully and productively with people or groups outside their own expressed ideas and beliefs, an essential component to creating successful alumni.
In the end, the GGBB advocates made a successful case, and #GGBBCampus occurred without incident. It was a positive experience for all involved; though unaware of the school’s actions, the Stonehill students ironically created the poster line, “For other people’s comfort, you’re experience will be censored.”
The reluctance of both Columbia and Stonehill administrators to address or improve the campus conversation, health services and policies around sexual assault shows that anti-rape campus activism is still necessary. This, despite a more than 1000% increase in Title IX complaints against U.S. colleges with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights between 2009 and 2014; some are already facing threats of federal funding removal.
As colleges are still failing to protect students from sexual assault and discrimination, #GGBBCampus meets a very widespread need for the students who desperately want to be heard...and maybe need a little cathartic relief too. What struck GGBB was the students’, professors’ and departments’ commitments to the cause and their shared desire to build a healthier community despite a lack of support from their institution. “Today the energy for social justice on campuses is amazing! GGBB loves connecting with students who are mad about sexual assault, racism and discrimination. [Together] we all get an improved understanding of the established order and what needs to happen to shake it up and transform the dialogue [about campus rape],” GGBB member, Minnette de Silva. It’s that relentless and passionate activist spirit that inspired GGBB to create the intersectional-based campaign with college students.
Art can seem like an unlikely effective activist strategy in places like colleges that can be bogged down by bureaucracy. Though art curator, Heather Zises points out that, “...artistic expression has an undisputed place in social activism. The role of art in political protest is effective because it attracts public attention in a more democratic way. I think street activist art as opposed to more traditional forms of political protest...sends powerful messages that penetrate our psyches on a deeper level.” One indisputable perk to creating an art activist poster is that it will live on well past involved students’ graduation dates; those posters are now part of activist art history.
However, the real benefit is that the GGBB sisterhood is sharing their critical thinking strategies, organizational skills and knowledge to the next generation of activists and feminists, showing students that the fight against violence and discrimination is much more achievable and bearable as a united front.
Katrina Majkut (My’ kit), a visual artist and writer in NYC, founded the feminist wedding lifestyle website, TheFeministBride.com (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). Mic Media identified her as one of four international artists starting a new chapter in feminist art, so feel free to check out her artwork too!
Images via Guerrilla Girls and Guerrilla Girls Broadband
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