The UChicago Clothesline Project: Want Funding to Fight Sexual Assault? It's Not Easy

Trying to fight sexism is hard, and the stakes are high when the battle is in the arena of sexual assault. Even on college campuses, where sexual assault is frighteningly common (some studies suggest that one in five college-aged women will be sexually assaulted), all too often the problem isn’t treated as a priority.

One group at the University of Chicago found this out the hard way. In fall of 2012, Patty Fernandez decided to start a campus branch of the Clothesline Project, a national campaign that tries to raise awareness of sexual assault. The national project encourages people to design and paint t-shirts with messages related to sexual assault: Anything from “No Means No!” (which we still have to reiterate for some reason) to details about a person's own experiences with sexual assault. The University of Chicago group decided to adopt and modify this technique.

“Our clothesline project is kind of a spin off of the national one,” Fernandez says. She wanted the UChicago project to be geared more towards giving survivors a voice, and representing their pain and presence. Survivors on campus are able to submit their stories anonymously through the website, and then the group invites campus artists and community members to take the stories and use them as inspiration for a t-shirt design. The shirts and stories are then displayed on campus in the spring. “For us,” Fernandez says, “each shirt represented one body that had been affected by sexual assault.”

When Fernandez first launched the group, the university was supportive. One of the associate deans helped them secure funding from the Dean’s Fund, and other university organizations pitched in with much-needed money. “People really reached out to us,” Fernandez remembers, but administrators made it clear the funding was just for their first year. “It felt like ‘OK, this is great to get you started, but next year you’ll go through the normal channels.’”

But when the group tried to use those channels, they hit a wall. As a registered student organization, they applied to the university’s Annual Allocations committee, which is responsible for divvying up most of the money accessible to the school's 300 or so student groups — but Clothesline Project was not given any funding at all. They asked for $1,000 for art supplies, tee-shirts, the supplies they needed for their spring installation, and maybe some pizza at the t-shirt making sessions. They got $0.

The group was shocked, and immediately appealed. Co-director Rachel Sullivan says, “We figured if we just explained we could sort it all out.” But their appeal was also denied by the all-male committee. The minutes from the meeting are jarring: Will they really get people sharing new stories every year? This is another thing to consider.

Let's circle back to some facts: Someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the U.S. Or, as the CDC found, 19 percent of undergraduate college women are sexually assaulted. Up to 90 percent of sexual assaults on campuses go unreported. However horrible the notion, a lack of stories for the project wasn't a concern.

After the appeal was rejected, the group went public, refusing to accept that they wouldn’t be able to continue their efforts next year. As Sullivan says, the decision "felt like the same bureaucratic idiocy that so often cripples survivors... Our survivors deserve better than that.” They decided to fight back. They spoke with the campus newspaper and created an online petition that eventually got over nine hundred signatures.

But creating a petition strained relations with the funding committee. “They were really angry that we went public,” Fernandez says. “It seemed to me that it was a lot about their image. They were concerned with not appearing like they don’t support survivors.”

The UChicago Clothesline Project’s fight highlights issues groups face when they get into the uphill battle against sexual assault on college campuses. Although some are supportive, too many aren’t educated about the extent of the problem, or else choose to disregard it. The result is often a lack of resources allocated to solving the situation — and the women trying to fight for their cause left looking and feeling irrational and angry.

Last week, the university’s Student Government Finance Committee — a completely separate, secondary funding source — decided during their summer session to grant the group the funding for which they asked. After a lot of instability and turmoil, the UChicago Clothesline Project will be sticking around for a while. The group is celebrating their fortunate outcome, though plenty battles are still left to be waged across campuses and organizations. For now, shirts will hang, and awareness will be raised in Chicago. It's a start.

For more info on the UChicago Clothesline project, visit their website or Facebook page. You can also check out the national Clothesline Project here.