Student-led group fosters healing through activism
The Justice speaks with PARC’s Community Engagement Group student facilitators.
When summer internships were cancelled at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandeis’s Prevention, Advocacy & Research Center offered its peer advocates the opportunity to intern with the organization for the summer. Eva Bohn ’22 and Sarah Baum ‘22 participated in the summer 2020 internship program, bringing what she learned with they into them academic year.
Each student worked on a project to present to PARC at the end of the summer. “I was researching the anti-violence movement and the way that led to the grassroots feminist movements of the 1970s. These feminists worked in [womens’] shelters with the dual processes of providing services and engaging the community in political activism against violence,” Bohn explained.
Bohn said that she initially pitched a support group to PARC, but “[Sarah and I] are not therapists. We’re not qualified to lead a support group.” As she researched grassroots activism, she noticed a need for a student-based discussion and advocacy group on campus. “PARC lets [student] peer advocates be a resource for people who’ve experienced things similar to what others experienced and that can be really rewarding,” Baum said.
However, PARC peer advocates have to apply and be accepted into the peer advocate position. “You can have that rewarding experience, but not everyone on campus can. And sometimes people don’t need or want to be in a support position [like a peer advocate],” Baum said. She continued, “There’s not a space on campus for people to bring in their own experiences [of violence] and draw on them in listening to other people.” The PARC Community Engagement Group emerged from a need for a student-led and engaged space. The organization receives funding from PARC’s budget, but is entirely student-led.
In spring 2021, Baum and Bohn facilitated a Zoom group of four community members who experienced sexual violence or assault, and at the end of the semester, they developed a “zine,” or selfpublished magazine – a project the members decided on collectively. In the zine, the members of the entire Brandeis community were invited to submit letters to “their past or future selves, or to their perpetrators,” Baum explained. She continued, “Our intention in making the zine online was to allow people to make submissions later on if they felt they wanted to. People could share as much or as little as they wanted to because it’s difficult to relive those horrible experiences.”
In an email correspondence with the Justice on Sept. 27, Baum wrote that PCEG focuses on “colearning.” When asked what PCEG means by this term, Baum said, “we [as facilitators] are not in a position to teach community members [who’ve experienced sexual assault].” Instead, “co-learning comes from our intent to allow everyone in the group to teach and learn from each other.”
This semester, Baum and Bohn are working to recruit a second year cohort for PCEG, and in the spring, they plan to work on a new project. They have started by reaching out to student publications and plan to table on campus. However, unlike last semester where the group was exclusively open to survivors of sexual assault, this semester they are expanding the group to include “people who’ve experienced violence in general, directly or through family, friends or their communities,” Baum said.
Speaking on adjusting from a remote group to in-person, Baum said, “Logistically, we need to find an in-person space where people will feel protected... the nice thing about being on Zoom was that you could turn off your camera or leave if it was too difficult of a conversation.” She explained that she’s looking forward to returning in person, but “this is something we have to be very intentional about.” Since sexual assault is such a sensitive topic, she said that “a lot of what we did was trying to let people take space, not pushing them to come to meetings or contribute to the project.”
Since Baum and Bohn will both be graduating in the spring of 2022, they plan to have Priya Sashti ’24 and Tali Gordon-Knight ’24 take over as facilitators. “Teaching new facilitators is about being transparent about what we did and didn’t do well as we plan curriculums — we share everything that doesn’t have confidential information,” Baum said. Baum said she’s looking forward to taking her past experience and applying it to this year’s project. “The prospect of being together in a community-building sense and creating something everyone is passionate about is so exciting,” she said. “We’re doing this to create a space for people to self advocate, and that’s really powerful.”