In this episode, Kathryn Kosmides speaks with Tracey Vitchers, a non-profit executive democratic political advisor and an expert on sexual violence prevention and survivor advocacy. Tracey served as an executive director of It's On Us a nonprofit founded in 2014 to combat campus sexual assault. It is considered the most extensive student organizing program since it launched in 2017.
In this episode, Tracey discusses:
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Today, our guest is Tracy E. Vitchers. Tracy Vitchers is a nonprofit executive, democratic political advisor, and nationally recognized expert on sexual violence prevention and survivor advocacy. Throughout her decade-long career, Tracy has raised more than $11 million for social justice causes and democratic political candidates. Tracy has served as the Executive Director of It's On Us, a nonprofit founded in 2014 as an initiative of the Obama-Biden Administration to combat campus sexual assault through peer-to-peer prevention, education programs, and activating the largest student organizing program of its kind since 2017. From April, 2014 to October, 2017, Tracy served as the chief development officer for Callisto, a nonprofit that creates technology to combat sexual assault, empower survivors, and advance justice. Today, our conversation touches on college campus sexual assault, and how prevention and intervention education can begin to create real change.
KATHRYN: You've been at It's On Us as the executive director since 2017, so tell us a little bit about the organization and your journey there.
TRACEY: Absolutely. It's On Us was originally launched in 2014 as a public awareness campaign of the Obama and Biden administration. But when I often tell the story of It's On Us, I like to go back in time to the 1990s when he was then Senator Biden. Senator Biden at the time had led the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s, which for the first time codified into law, a series of new provisions. It established, for example, the Office of Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice and created funding streams for sexual and domestic violence prevention. It established for the first time, which is wild to think about, an actual definition of rape at the federal level. The fact that that didn't happen until the 1990s is pretty terrifying. When he then entered the White House as vice president, during the Obama administration, President Biden actually worked with President Obama to basically establish a new team within the administration led by Lynn Rosenthal, to really focus on combating violence against women. One of the first tasks that Lynn was really given by then Vice President Biden, was to do a lookback and understand what progress had or had not been made since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in reducing sexual and domestic violence in the United States. One of the key findings of that research and that lookback was the fact that while we actually made really good progress, writ large with reducing incidents of sexual and domestic violence in the U S but there was one population in particular where either no change had happened, or depending on how you looked at the data, the issue had gotten worse. That was with 16 to 24 year olds. The question then became ‘why?’ Why are we seeing such high rates of sexual and dating violence with this population? When they continued to dig further and further and further, what they found was that a huge driver of the rates of sexual and dating violence within that population was happening because of incidents of campus sexual assault. Ultimately, what was happening is schools were claiming that they were doing sexual assault prevention, but what they were actually teaching was sexual assault avoidance. So telling young women ‘Don't walk home alone at night, carry your keys, watch your drink.’ We've all heard this advice that young women got. But we know that it doesn't actually matter how much women try to protect themselves. That doesn't actually stop sexual violence from happening because 85% of survivors know their perpetrator and 50% of those incidents of campus sexual assault that occur happen in a first date setting. It's somebody that you know, it's somebody that you've agreed to go out to a party with or to a bar with. And then they break that trust and they commit an act of sexual violence against you. What they also learned was that young men weren't really getting anything in terms of prevention education, and how are we going to solve a problem if you're not educating 50% of the student population that sexual assault happens, you need to ask for consent, and if you see something sketchy about to go down, you have a responsibility to step in and do something about it. So that's really where It's On Us was born from- was this idea of needing to young men in to this movement and to help them see themselves as part of the solution. The White House partnered with this really amazing creative agency that is still our creative agency today, Mekanism, to basically build out the It's On Us brand and to figure out how do we talk to guys about the importance of college sexual assault prevention. It's On Us launched in 2014 with a handful of celebrity-driven public service announcements, PSAs, really trying to just introduce this topic to guys on college campuses. I always kind of joke that no one was really prepared for what would happen next. Nobody had ever done this before. Nobody knew would this launch and it flop? Would it launch and be neutral? Would it take off? It just—nobody knew. It's On Us launched and it just caught fire. People loved the message. They loved the fact that, for once, men were being told, ‘You need to be a part of the solution to this.’ We started to see these It's On Us chapters happening on college campuses. They started to form organically. You saw students starting to organize under the banner of It's On Us and doing pledge drives because one of the first things that we launched with was the It's On Us pledge. But then students would do pledge drives and they be like, ‘Well now what do we do?’ Our whole campus community is super stoked about It's On Us. What's next? It's On Us was eventually rolled out of the administration and it found a home at a nonprofit called Civic Nation. Civic Nation is our parent organization. It is home to It's On Us. It's home to United State of Women. It's home to End Rape on Campus. It's home to former first lady, Michelle Obama's, When We All Vote voting initiative. We host a lot of those social justice campaigns that came out of the Obama-Biden administration. I came in in 2017 as the executive director. I know we're going to talk a little bit more about my time at Callisto later, but at the time I was working at Callisto, a technology non-profit focused on sexual assault, survivor support, and reporting on college campuses. It's kind of a funny story. At this point, Lynn Rosenthal had been hired by the Biden Foundation to oversee the Biden Foundation's Volvo work. They had made the strategic decision to not bring It's On Us under the Biden Foundation, but really keep it at Civic Nation so that way it could live really in more of that social justice organizing environment, then under a more traditional vice-presidential foundation. But the goal was to have the Biden Foundation and It's On Us to work very closely. There was a team that transitioned It's On Us over to Civic Nation, but the person who had led that transition decided that they didn't want to stay on long-term. I was asked to come to a meeting at the Biden Foundation that Lynn and some other staff members and the Biden Foundation had gathered to hear from stakeholders and to understand what was happening in the field of college sexual assault and sexual violence, how could the Biden Foundation be attentive, how could they be supportive of that work? It was funny because on the agenda, there was this very vague 30 minute block that didn't have anything on it, but it just said ‘Reserved’, it got to the point where then the question was asked, ‘All right, we're going to talk about It's On Us.’ The people in the room who were students survivors who had run other organizations in the field had mixed feelings about It's On Us. Even at the time, I had a lot of questions about It's On Us of like, ‘You put out all these fancy PSAs, now what?’ There was a lot of feeling among the survivor movement at the time, that it had co-opted their work and sort of out shined them. It was a really tough conversation, but I think it was a necessary conversation. I remember just saying ‘ In the room, It's On Us has a ton of potential, but right now, no one knows what it does.’ You need to figure out what the organization does if it's going to have impact. What is the goal of It's On Us? What's the mission? What's its theory of change, because if you can define that, you can turn it into something really great and really impactful. But without that, it's just going to continue to be the weird public awareness campaign. And what value add is that creating was the question. It was really quite funny because afterwards Lynn pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, that they're looking for a new executive director, right?’ And she's like, ‘I liked your answer.’, and just kinda gave me a look. At the time I was starting to think about, what was next after Callisto and I really loved working close to her. I'm really proud of the work that we did there. But ultimately I had gotten to the point in my own evolution as an activist where I said to myself, ‘I want to live in a world where no student experiences sexual assault when they go to college.’ To do that, you actually need to prevent it from happening. Supporting survivors is critical. We need to have robust survivor support services. We need to make sure that student survivors have access to a strong Title IX. That they have their rights upheld. That they have on campus and off campus support services. We also need to commit to ending sexual violence. When I was presented with this opportunity to apply, I wrestled with it a lot. When I leave the organization that I really helped to start in so many ways and leave, our CEO, Jess, at Callisto who was such a good friend, I was like, ‘What do I do?’ I was like, ‘well, I'm just going to throw my hat in the ring and see what happens.’ I remember when I got the job, I was like, ‘Wait, what you actually want to hire me?’ It's like, ‘Are you crazy? You're hiring this little rabble-rousing activist to come and run this.’ and I was like, ‘But here we go.’ I remember calling Jess Ladd and telling her, and she was like, ‘Well, obviously I'm going to miss you, but like, you can't turn down the opportunity to run the vice president of the United States' nonprofit program’ she's like, ‘You would be crazy.’ So I joined the It's On Us team as the executive director in November of 2017 and I've been here ever since.
KATHRYN: Wow, what a journey that you've been through and to get to where you are today. I think we all come to this work because we are this source and that's what I want to touch on a little bit is- joining in 2017, let's reflect on where the world was in 2017 and where we are today now with Biden being president. What does that mean for the organization? Can you talk a little bit about what was that first few years like with a different administration and how did that impact your work? And now what are you thinking moving forward?
TRACEY: I came on board right around the time that Betsy Devoss started signaling that she was going to resend the 2011 and 2014 ‘Dear Colleague’ Letters that had been put out by the Department of Education. For folks who are listening, but don't have a clear sense of what that is- essentially during the Obama administration, the Department of Education put out what's known as guidance or informally ‘Dear Colleague’ letters, which clarified for colleges and universities, as well as K-12 schools, what their responsibilities were under Title IX to both prevent and respond to incidents of sexual harassment. They use the term sexual harassment as an umbrella term that's inclusive of all different kinds of sexual violence, rape, dating violence, sexual assault, harassment, etc. and how basically the Department of Education was going to interpret Title IX application on those issues and what schools needed to do in order to prevent violence and support survivors when it happened and how to investigate and adjudicate reports under Title IX. When Trump was elected and we knew Betsy Devoss was going in as the secretary of education, it was an immediate red flag because we knew two other organizations in the space that were really seeking to undo the Title IX regulation. What we saw happen was almost an immediate elimination of that guidance and the signaling that they were going to move forward with an actual regulatory change on Title IX and campus sexual assault. The federal regulatory process is really complicated and it takes a really long time, but when you make a federal rule change to something like a civil rights law, it's really hard to undo it. It was like our greatest fear started to emerge. We ended up finding out that she was meeting with various groups that were raped denial groups that really sought to undo student survivor rights and protections, but she wasn't having stakeholder meetings with survivors or advocacy organizations. then suddenly they had to do this meeting that was essentially Betsy Devoss and her staff just sitting there while survivors shared their trauma. She sat there completely emotionless and non-responsive to any of it. At that point, we saw the writing on the wall and we had spent the entire Obama administration working so closely with that administration and with the Department of Education as student activists and we pushed them, right? We did push them, but when we pushed them, we knew that the result was going to be the change that we wanted to see. In this case, we had to go on defense. That was a complete change of mindset of ‘Well, how do we fight this? What do we do about this?’ I sort of joke that we used the federal government's regulations against them to try to slow the process down as best as we could, and to just overwhelm them, and to slow it down and to make sure that they had to respond to us, they had to take meetings with us. They had to do these things. They had to hear us out, but coming into It's On Us in that moment, I remember taking a pause and saying, ‘How do we build It's On Us into an organization that empowers students to prevent sexual assault and protect themselves and others within their campus community, regardless of what is happening at the federal or state legislative level?’, like how do we make sure that students are equipped with the knowledge and tools that they need to prevent sexual assault from happening and support survivors when it happens? At that point, I basically made the commitment that we were going to turn It's On Us, into the nation's largest peer-to-peer grassroots prevention education organization in the country. We'd already had a list of schools that had done events with us. We already had this loose chapter networks in place. So the first year was really focused on formalizing that campus chapter network and listening to students and saying, What are you learning about sexual assault prevention? What is your school telling you? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it neutral? Is it just an institutional risk management approach where you click through a 30 minute webinar that has literally no impact on your attitude or behavior after you've watched it, right? You're like that's a half hour. I'm never getting back again. Or are they actually doing bystander intervention programming? Are they actually talking to fraternities and athletes about this issue, like what's happening? What we kept hearing over and over again, was that schools were doing the bare minimum and that it was really falling on students to do this work with the exception of some administrations that were really bought in and were doing really great work. But they were the exception, not the rule. We really then in that moment said, ‘All right, we are doubling down on creating the chapter network.’ We also then hired my second in command, Silvia Zenteno as our senior director of educational programs and research to come on and build out peer-to-peer prevention programming. Between 2017 and today we built out six core peer-to-peer prevention education programs that include customizable decks, that includes supplementary information, that include video content that students can use within their own campus communities to educate each other about this issue because as much as I want administrators to take on that responsibility, they're not in a lot of cases. Putting really the power back in the hands of our students and saying, ‘We're not going to charge you for this.’- I will never charge a chapter a dime to use one of our prevention programs, rape prevention should not come with a price tag- full stop. Unfortunately there have been a lot of for-profit companies that have tried to get into this space and profit off of it. That upsets me to my core. We really came in with that ethos of how do we put the power back in the hands of our students? How do we make it accessible? How do we make it relevant? We've worked with a whole host of companies to help us build these programs out. For example, the one thing that we kept hearing from students over and over again was, ‘Schools are not touching online dating with a 10 foot pole.’ and part of that was a generational gap and a lack of comfort or understanding of how online dating and apps like Tinder work. I was like, ‘Well, this is an interesting anecdote.’ I reached out to Tinder and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to partner with us to build out the first ever prevention education program for college students on sexual assault?’ and ‘They were like, hell yeah.’ And so we built the first ever prevention education program on how to online date safely. It was just simply like we listened to our students. It's not that hard. If you ask a college student what is affecting you with this issue, they're going to give you a list of a dozen things and you're going to have your mind blown and be like, ‘Oh, schools aren't doing this.’ No, they're not.
KATHRYN: Sadly, they're not. It's almost like HR, right? HR is not to protect people, right? HR is to protect the company. These trainings are not to protect sexual assault victims or potential victims. It is to protect the club or the school.
TRACEY: It's exactly to that point. It's institutional risk management and that's what I call it. It's institutional risk management. It's allowing schools to say we are compliant with the Clery Act, which requires us to do annual prevention education programming with a hundred percent of our students. So before they can register for classes, every student is going to sit through some 30 minute webinars that they click through. They don't absorb any information. They're rushing through it so they can get a seat in that econ class that they really, really want and they move on. But then when a student survivor comes forward and says, ‘I was sexually assaulted.’, they can say, ’Well, we did prevention education and it just didn't stick with him. That's not our fault.’
KATHRYN: I think that's why I'm just so in awe of what you chose to do. You chose to say, ‘We're just going to- instead of listening to and responding to organizations and institutions and governments- we're just going to listen and talk to students and actually go to the source of the problem and the solution and say, 'What do you need? How can we help you?' You worked so well in tandem with students. Instead of talking at them like, ‘Ah, do this or don't do that.’ It's building these communities on campus and that's just such a different way in which to think about sexual assault prevention in general, is that community driven approach, not the, ‘Oh, you have obligatory training mandate from the government.’, that's not going to solve it.
TRACEY: It's not because the way that you prevent sexual assault is you give students avenues to engage in true attitudinal and behavior and culture change. That doesn't happen through a webinar, that doesn't happen through a lecture. That happens through real life conversations, in a peer-to-peer setting where the person facilitating the conversation looks like you, talks like you, go to the same school as you, sits next to you in psych, is on the football team with you. When you have that person talking to you, like, ‘Hey, I care about this issue. You should too.’, you're more likely to perk up and listen. Positive peer pressure is a thing. It's a good thing. If you can create an environment where students are like, ‘Hey man, that comment that you just made, wasn't funny.’ or ‘We don't tell rape jokes in this locker room.’ That is the culture change that we need to see. And that's not gonna happen through a 30 minute webinar. It's not going to happen through a lecture. It happens through having real conversations that are relatable and also partnering with the different platforms that students are working with to embed this message as part of their everyday life. Because again, if you only hear about this ,once and done, as part of Freshmen orientation, when you're completely overwhelmed with all of the information that you're getting, it's not going to stack. But if you're opening up your Tinder app, and the first thing that you see is an It's On Us logo with tips about how to use online dating safely, then that just becomes part of your everyday existence and experience. It helps, right? It helps build these lessons into like something that you're thinking about regularly, just as part of your everyday life, which it needs to be if we're going to solve this problem.
KATHRYN: Exactly. It can't be a one-and-done thing, right? These are ongoing conversations, these things evolve, right? You have those webinars, right? I'm sure they are not talking about nonconsensual image sharing, for example. They're not talking about the ways in which these harms have evolved as well. The idea of integrating it into the lived experiences of young people is so important. Let's just go back a little bit. You mentioned this attack on Title XI, right? It is being attacked. It's still being attacked. Just women's rights, in general, are being attacked, right? In every which way, survivors rates, etc., and I just really want to understand what is the benefit of not believing survivors?
TRACEY: I think when you are confronted with the possibility of someone that you know and that you otherwise respected and thought was a good person. When you're confronted with information that runs counter to that and can force you to have to look at that person in a different light, that can rip the carpet out from underneath someone. It can really throw somebody into this like existential crisis almost to a degree of, ‘I thought Tommy was a good guy and now you're telling me he's not.’ Then you have to rethink every interaction that you've had with that person. You have to rethink every time that you've seen that person. You've seen Tommy go upstairs in the fraternity house with a girl and why didn't you do something about it? Why didn't you see it? I think it's sometimes easier to do the mental gymnastics of, ‘But Tommy's a good guy. He wouldn't do that.’ even though somebody is literally telling you, ‘He did that to me’, than it is to have to take a step back and acknowledge that this person that you otherwise thought was a good person, maybe isn't and also how you contributed to them engaging in that rather than stepping in and saying something or doing something to stop it from happening. We know the majority of guys on campus are good guys. 90% of the incidents of sexual assault that take place on college campuses are committed by 5% to 6% of the male student population who are repeat perpetrators with men and fraternities and male athletes being at highest risk for perpetration and repeat perpetration. When you think about that, the issue- and this is the core of what It's On Us to trying to get at- is how do you help guys unlearn a lot of these messages of toxic masculinity that they've been raised in? We cannot separate the fact that we have all been raised in a white supremacist patriarchal culture. It doesn't matter how many women are sitting in the boardroom. That is still the existence, that is still the society and culture that we are in. To help guys identify like, ‘Hey, there are lessons that I have learned, and there are behaviors that I've engaged in or beliefs that I've held that are actually harmful and toxic to other people.’, that's a lot of unlearning you have to do, and that doesn't happen overnight. It also means that those guys have to be in a place where they are ready and able to be accountable for the ways that they have perpetrated, or they have perpetuated rape culture, even if they haven't sexually assaulted someone. How they've laughed at the rape joke, how they didn't step in when they saw a girl who was way too drunk being taken upstairs, when they watched the sexist movie, when they told the girl at the party that she is a prostitute because they were being pressured by the guys around them to do that. Having to confront that within yourself and be accountable for the ways that you have upheld a culture that is harmful is hard to do. It requires a lot of work and it requires a lot of self-reflection. We really at it's on us, try to create that space for guys to have some of these hard conversations and ask some of these tough questions because one of things that I see a lot- and I think we all experienced this to some degree or another- is this ‘call-out’ culture. It often means that guys who may have questions or have concerns are afraid of raising them because they're afraid that they're going to say the wrong thing or that they're going to respond in a wrong way and then they're going to get called out. They're going to get taken down. They're going to have everybody tweet angry tweets at them, and that isn't conducive to having some of these hard conversations. We really try to think about how do we create spaces to have those harder conversations that also creates space for accountability because accountability is key here. The ability to be self-accountable and to be accountable to others is key when we're talking about this issue and how men engage in these conversations. We try to make it relatable. I've spent my entire career doing this work. I don't expect a college freshmen boy to have the same level of knowledge or expertise or frankly, vocabulary that I do. If he does, god bless, right? But, probably not going to be the reality. I always say, ‘One organization isn't going to solve this problem.’ It takes partnerships, it takes bringing people to the table. One of those things that I've really tried to do is think about this multi-dimensional approach where, who are all the stakeholders that need to be at this table, because yes, it is it's On Us. It also needs to be survivor advocacy organizations like End Rape On Campus, who have survivors who were like, ‘Hey, I want to come and help inform your prevention education programming.’ That's important too. We need those voices at the table. We also need different kinds of brands who students are interacting with on a daily basis and various platforms. Coming from the tech industry prior to being at It's On Us, I so clearly saw over and over and over again, companies that were built by enlarge straight men. They were hacking whatever economy, whether it's rideshare or dating or whatever. We have this proliferation of we're going to hack this or that system or this or that industry. In the early 2010s that saw the emergence of Lyft, Uber, Tinder, Snapchat, Instagram- TikTok now- you saw these new platforms coming out, but in many cases they were not originally built by someone who had a lens for safety or who had to do the mental checklist. Like, ‘Okay, so before I go out tonight, what are the seven safety things that I need to do before I go out and meet this new guy at the bar?’ that women do all the time. It's just something that we are taught to do because we live in an unsafe culture. These companies emerge and then incidents of harm happen. It's a reactive response. It's like, ‘Oh no, we didn't realize that like this would happen.’ and what I always say is ‘These platforms and these apps, they don't exist in a void. They exist in real world where real harm happens. They are not excluded from real-world problems.’ And with that, then how do we work with those companies to bring that lens of safety, to bring survivors to the table to share their experiences of harm, and then help them think through, okay, how are we going to change? How are we going to integrate safety into the work that we're doing? How are we going to prevent X, Y, or Z thing from happening in the future? And God forbid that it does, how are we supporting the person who was victimized to the best of our ability? These conversations are often really nuanced, right? I had a conversation once with a legislator who wanted to have mandatory referral to law enforcement of any incident of sexual assault that happened on any tech-based platform, whether that was online, dating rideshare, et cetera. I had to have an educational conversation with them to say, ‘You know, that actually mandatory referral laws reduce the likelihood that a survivor is going to report because most survivors don't want to take criminal action against their perpetrator.’ They just want that person to not hurt someone else, and so the best way to make sure that person doesn't hurt someone else is to report it to the app or the company, etc. and let them know that this thing happened. And then let them take that person off the platform. But the second that you require them to go to law enforcement, that's not a safe option for most people. It's not a safe option for women. In most cases, it's not a safe option for a person of color or an LGBTQ person. The second that you force mandatory referral, you're actually putting a chilling effect, you're doing the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish. Fundamentally, none of these systems or institutions were built by survivors in theory, right? They weren't built by the people that now they're serving and this is what I always go back to. We're about to come up in June is the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX is only been in existence for 50 years. When we talk about culture change and we talk about behavioral and attitudinal change, it doesn't just happen overnight. The fact that Title IX is only 50 years old. I remind folks, most schools didn't become co-ed until the 60s maybe, and these institutions were not built for women or trans people or people of color. These are institutions that were by enlarge built to uphold white males supremacy and educate men and specific men. As education has become more accessible to women, to people of color, to LGBTQ folks, folks with disabilities, etc., we are now running into these systems that were not built for us. It's like whiplash, right? And then you're like, ‘Oh, but like I was accepted to this school. It wants me, but now all of its policies and procedures are pushing me back and it's stopping me from being able to have a positive educational experience here.’ I always try to put it in that context. It's been less than a hundred years that women have been at most of these educational institutions. That's wild to think about, but then you think about things like the trajectory of the feminist movement. I was born in 1987. I was coming of age and the Spice Girls' girl power moment where you started to see young women surpass young men in enrollment in college. It was all of these conversations about girl power and girls empowerment and breaking the glass ceiling. When you're raised, as a young woman to be told- you can do anything that you want to do, you can be whoever you want to be- and then you go to college and something terrible happens to you and you experience sexual assault and you go to this institution that you have put faith in and to protect you and to educate you and to keep you safe, and then that institution fails you. That's just another form of betrayal and harm. That's the thing that we hear over and over and over again from student survivors is - ‘My rape was bad, but my institution's response was worse.’ It's that institutional betrayal in many cases that pushes students out and makes survivors say, ‘I don't want to be here anymore. I'm going to transfer. I'm going to drop out. I'm going to take time off.’ I think as we talk about these issues, we also have to talk about how the system of higher education is not built for the majority of the student populations that it now serves. That's a whole other can of worms and a whole other big topic, but when we think about sexual assault prevention within educational systems and campus communities, we have to remember that. It's not only fighting for high-quality prevention education. It's not only fighting for survivor rights. It's fighting to have these institutions have to take a step back and to go back to the start of the conversation about accountability and about admitting how you have somehow upheld rape culture. These institutions need to take a hard look at themselves and the way that their policies and procedures and traditions have also upheld and continue to uphold rape culture. Until that happens, it's going to continue to be an uphill battle, but I do think we are starting to see those changes. I do see schools where we are seeing glimmers of hope and are starting to be models for how to do this well. It doesn't mean harm doesn't happen at those institutions, but they are trying.
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I'm Kathryn Kosmides and I look forward to having you join us for the next episode of Reckoning.