You have a story. Write your story. Share your story.
That’s the threefold message of UMSL Voices, a pilot project underway at the University of Missouri–St. Louis this spring in partnership with Solid Lines Productions. For UMSL students, it’s an opportunity for conversation and education about topics that can be difficult to talk about: sex, culture and violence.
A collaboration of Fraternity & Sorority Life and UMSL Counseling Services, the effort will culminate in a free performance the evening of April 21. But the process is just as central in this case, note the organizers. Two workshops in recent weeks – and one more set for 6 p.m. April 14 – have provided a safe, unique format for students to write about and discuss experiences of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence.
“The workshops can be just as important as the performance,” says Christopher LaBanca, artistic director of Solid Lines Productions. “There’s going to be people who write things down and do not want to get on stage and do not want professional actors performing their piece. Maybe their assailant is on campus, and they don’t want their story recognized. But by the same token, if someone wants to write it down and then shred it, there’s something about that which can be cathartic, too.”
LaBanca credits UMSL counselor Mindy Stratman-Sebol, who also serves as the university’s victim advocate, with keeping the project’s focus on serving students in ways that really matter.
“It’s important that individuals who have had these experiences have their voices heard,” Stratman-Sebol says. “We see people all the time who say, ‘Oh, I’ve gone through this,’ and they don’t even realize what they’ve gone through was an assault. Sometimes the education in that is more important than anything.”
Also key is raising awareness among UMSL students and the campus community about the reality of these issues, adds Colleen Pace, coordinator of Fraternity & Sorority Life. Acknowledging that they’re common problems within Greek student organizations across the country, Pace sees room for growth in awareness among UMSL’s own fraternities and sororities.
“The members aren’t necessarily always the perpetrators or the people involved, but that atmosphere that happens at parties contributes to it,” she says. “And so I think it’s important for our students to understand how widespread this problem is and that it does happen at UMSL.”
St. Louis-based actress Anna Richards has been on hand during the UMSL Voices workshops to perform stories that may encourage students to share their own – and to serve as a resource as they draft and think about potentially performing such a piece.
“Social justice theater is very close to my heart,” she says. “When I was a college student, we did a lot of social justice forum theater that was often focused on sexual violence and on opening up scenarios that students see on campus or experience or could experience.”
The UMSL Voices performance, set for 7 p.m. April 21 in the J.C. Penney Auditorium, is free and open to public. Leading up to the next week’s event, students are spearheading what’s being termed a “panty drive” to support a local rape crisis center – with the campus community asked to donate new cotton panties or sports bras, which will be directed to YWCA.
“I’ve said ‘panty drive’ to a couple people, and they’re like, ‘Wait. What?'” says Stratman-Sebol. “And then I explain what it’s for, and it kind of gets you to stop and think about how as a victim your clothes are taken away from you at the hospital, and you’re left there with whatever the rape crisis center or maybe family bring you.”
Stratman-Sebol adds that while the UMSL Voices workshops, performance and donation effort are an important part of driving much-needed change around such issues, there’s much more to be done, from her perspective.
“And that’s something that we’re working on,” she says. “I’m personally working on more awareness around all types of violence – not just sexual assault but domestic violence, stalking, harassment, even racial violence – things that we all need to start paying more attention to.”