Action through Art: CounterAct addresses on-campus sexual violence with arts-based initiative

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Sexual violence awareness and prevention have become hot topics in society following the #MeToo movement and the Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh.

ASU hopes to address the problem head-on by educating its students through CounterAct, a multidisciplinary, campus-wide effort to reduce sexual assault and promote healthy sexuality using the arts.

The initiative officially launched in April as a creative partnership with the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. It not only hosts a theatrical performance for freshmen at the beginning of the year, but also aims to launch 880 creative actions to counteract the 880 acts of sexual violence that occur in the United States on a daily basis, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

From short films to poetry nights to dance concerts on the Memorial Union lawn, students can apply to host their own counteractions and can even secure funding through the initiative.

Counteractions have included original theatrical performances, an event raising awareness on sexual assault and indigenous women and live consent-based body painting.

“(The thought was) cultural problems need cultural solutions,” Elizabeth Johnson, one of the initiative’s co-directors, says.

A choreographer, dancer and educator with a background in socially engaged work, Johnson says the connection between movement, arts and the subject matter was inherent.

“I think there’s a power about using the body to both understand perceptions in our culture but also to personalize it in a way that cannot be observed inwards,” she says.

Johnson — known to those she meets as E.J. — is matched in passion and spirit by co-director Nik Zaleski, a stage director, playwright and cultural activist who has done similar types of sexual violence prevention work at universities across the country, including Northwestern.

The two enlisted ASU students to help develop and perform With Each Other, a mandatory performance most on-campus freshmen attended during their first week of school.

The show explores the spectrum of sexual violence — from catcalling to date rape — through the lens of college seniors looking back on their university experiences.

With visuals, choreography and relatable content, the result is a show that not only keeps 19-year-olds from checking their phones for an hour but also begins to launch the types of conversations that can inspire a culture shift on campus.

While this past August only marked the show’s second iteration, it seems awareness around campus may be spreading, especially for Reslie Cortes, a communications graduate student who performed in last year’s show and is now a co-chair for the CounterAct student organization.

“(The show) impacted me so deeply and made me think of my personal experiences with sexual violence, and it was such a transformative experience… that I really wanted to continue doing this kind of work,” Cortes says.

Cortes helped create the CounterAct student organization as a means of ensuring that these arts-based approaches continue at ASU after the 880-acts deadline and the initiative, which culminate in April 2019.

“I would hope that by the end of this year, it becomes large enough, impactful and visible enough that it’s part of a campus-wide conversation (and) that we recognize that current events are exactly what we are trying to address,” Cortes says.

She pointed to one of the club’s first events — a poetry night themed around believing survivors — and says that students made references to the Kavanaugh hearings and the larger culture beyond campus.

“Part of the beauty of arts-based practices and creative tools… is that once you’re there, you realize that the metaphors, writing, performance activities and embodied work are all connecting our lived experience to a bigger issue,” she says, comparing it to a typical PowerPoint that students would be shown.

For Cortes, the goal is never to lecture or preach but to creatively attend to the topic by opening up spaces where people can tap into their personal knowledge, experiences and memories.

CounterAct will continue to accept applications for creative counteractions to occur in the spring semester. Students, staff and faculty who apply by November 14, are eligible for seed grants ranging from $200 to $1,200 for supplies, marketing and other expenses.

The shift may just be beginning on campus, but the work the CounterAct initiative has accomplished has Johnson confident that the prominence of the issue and the pursuit of creative confrontation is here to stay.

“This topic is going to be here to stay for a while because of its pervasiveness, its complexity, its systemic issues, the ways that it also rubs up against other places of oppression and other places of social illness,” she says.

“I feel like we have been grappling with this as a culture for a while.”

Students can stay up to date on planned counteractions at herbergerinstitute.asu.edu/research-and-initiatives/counteract. They can also get involved with the CounterAct student organization through their Facebook page at Facebook.com/CounterActStudents.

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