By: Aimee LaBrie
Sarah McMahon has faced big crowds before. In 2014, she repeatedly presented the results of the research on campus climates, with which she was asked to partner by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Violence to numerous high-level politicians and stakeholders. In her day to day life as the associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women (VAWC) at the Rutgers School of Social Work, she regularly speaks to social workers, graduate students, and other professionals around the country about the VAWC certificate program, the research they are conducting, and ways to identify and reduce domestic and sexual violence toward women and children. But nothing quite prepared her for being asked to offer speak to a packed stadium in the Rutgers New Brunswick Student Center last Thursday, Oct. 12, prior to the introduction of former U.S. Vice President, Joe Biden, as part of the "It's On Us" campaign.
Launched by Biden and Obama, the campaign is a natural extension of Biden's life-time commitment to end sexual violence, starting with the passing of the Violence Against Women Act twenty-two years ago, legislation that he drafted and fought for as the senator of Delaware.
Biden was invited to Rutgers by the Division of Student Affairs as part of Rutgers-New Brunswick’s "End Sexual Violence" campaign and Turn the Campus Purple initiative. This weeklong series of events was held to raise awareness and garner support for survivors of dating violence and relationship abuse. As part of the event, numerous survivors bravely shared their stories about sexual assault, illustrating both the impact and frequency of these occurrences, as well as their own resiliency.
Before stepping onstage, McMahon took a deep breath, and then faced the bright lights and the hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and community members who turned out to support this campaign. She spoke succinctly and passionately about the need for more work in the field of sexual violence, particularly as it relates to sharing existing campus resources. She also urged the students to get involved. "You have an incredibly important role to play in creating change. You are the ones who have the power to disrupt and interrupt sexual violence," she explained. "Whether by challenging a friend using sexist or racist or homophobic language, by holding someone accountable for inappropriate behavior, or by letting a friend know you are there to support them, you are the ones who have the power to create real change."
Shortly after her speech, Joe Biden took the stage. In his inspiring, sixty minute presentation, Biden explained the importance of these conversations and of continued and ongoing support. He also reminded listeners that this is not just a problem for women to solve. "Men on campus, you have to take more responsibility. When you see that person who’s stone cold drunk and you see someone, maybe your roommate, bringing her upstairs; if you see that and don’t stand up and say, ‘Not in my house, Jack,’ you’re a coward," he said. "Speak out. Get others up to come with you.”
When the event concluded, Biden stayed behind to meet and greet the over 300 students who were invited to the VIP section. Among those students were survivors of sexual assault, students from organizations, and members of the VAWC team.
Asiya Fricke ’18, who had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Biden, said that the experience was amazing. “I couldn’t believe how much time he took with every single person. He connected with us individually and really listened to many students who were inspired to share their stories with him in that moment. It was incredible.” In fact, Biden was so engaged with the students that he missed his flight and had to take a later one.
After the event, McMahon was able to meet Biden. He emphasized the importance of her work with the campus climate survey, encouraging her to continue with her research
For McMahon, the event, which brought out over two-thousand people, is a step in the right direction. "I cannot think of anyone better to continue to inspire our efforts than Vice President Biden. His longstanding work on this issue has made an impact that goes beyond words," she said. "I truly believe that the work that he and President Obama did on this issue has changed the landscape of how we address sexual violence, and there is no going back."