Pitt students address sexual assault through art

By Jessica Iacullo / Staff Writer

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Two Pitt graduate students are combating sexual assault on college campuses, armed with a paper chain that could one day span the height of the Cathedral of Learning.  

The chain is made out of colored paper stapled together to create links, similar to the decorative chains one might find hanging in an elementary school art room. On each link there is an “It’s On Us” pledge, signed by a Pitt student, faculty member or staff member. 

Megan Crilly and Christopher Hoffmann want to implement a Pitt-specific initiative similar to the national “It’s On Us” campaign that Pitt’s Sexual Assault Task Force adopted last September.

“Everyone has been reacting really positively to the campaign, and faculty and staff have been involved as well,” Crilly and Hoffmann said in an email. “One of the coolest reactions we have noticed is that people have been writing messages to us on the paper links themselves. Students have written things like, ‘Thank you for doing this!’ and ‘This is much needed.’”

The two graduate students, also members of the Task Force, are contributing to the campaign with a paper chain project and a campaign video, according to Mary Ruiz, head of the Pitt’s Sexual Assault Task Force. The video is scheduled to appear on the Student Affairs website today. 

Crilly and Hoffmann said it will be long enough to span the height of the Cathedral of Learning, which is 535 feet tall. The two added that they hope they can display the chain at a location on campus, which they haven’t yet determined.

“We chose a chain to show that our campus stands strong, together, against sexual assault,” Crilly and Hoffmann said. “Currently, we have about 3,000 links on the chain.” 

According to Crilly, she and Hoffmann chose to construct a paper chain to augment the online initiative, after a brainstorming session in their office. Crilly is a a Master of Science student in the Graduate School of Public Health and Hoffmann is also an M.P.H./M.P.A. dual degree student there and at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. 

Stacey Downs, a sophomore majoring in accounting and finance, learned about the “It’s On Us” campaign at Pitt Dance Marathon, where she noticed an “It’s On Us” table. 

“It’s really important to make students aware of the project,” Downs said, “especially considering what has been happening at other college campuses.”

Crilly and Hoffmann started building the chain last semester and have since added more links with signatures from student groups like Campus Women’s Organization and Pitt Athletics. Chancellor Gallagher, Dean Humphrey and about 200 students were among the first to sign the chain.  

The campaign work, however, is not exclusive to a Pitt audience. 

“We’ve been working diligently to reach out to the national campaign in order to inform them about this project that is unique to Pitt,” Crilly and Hoffmann said. “We hope that it garners national attention, because the more people who are involved, the more effective it is.” 

Crilly and Hoffmann worked with the Marketing and Communications Office to create the Pitt-specific “It’s On Us” video. 

“The video features recognizable faces from around campus, and we think it will help the campaign’s message even more,” Crilly and Hoffmann said.

In September, the Obama administration introduced “It’s On Us,” a national sexual assault prevention initiative for college campuses. “It’s On Us” is a public awareness and educational campaign to shift society’s attitudes about its responsibility to prevent sexual assault. The White House initiative encourages members of all universities and colleges to sign a pledge online to commit to an environment where sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported. 

College-aged women are four times more likely than any other age group to face sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Schools across the country, such as Penn State, have also taken action by bringing “It’s On Us” to their student body. At a Penn State football game last semester, the school aired a 32-second “It’s On Us” public service announcement, featuring famous celebrities like Jon Hamm, Kerry Washington, Kevin Love and Questlove. 

Elise Kaslander, a Penn State sophomore studying psychology, attended the game and saw the “It’s On Us” video. 

“The video definitely stood out to me because football games are such a fun atmosphere and the stadium is so big,” Kaslander said. “But it got really serious when the campaign came on. I had never seen anything for this campaign before, so it was something new in relation to sexual assault.” 

Crilly and Hoffmann note that many key figures at Pitt have signed the chain, such as Roc the Panther, members of the Faculty Senate, a number that Hoffmann could not recall and Chancellor Gallagher. 

On Feb. 13, Chancellor Gallagher issued a memo describing his and the University’s stance on sexual assault and violence to Pitt’s faculty and staff. In the email, Gallagher announced the new online program, Preventing Discrimination and Sexual Violence: Title IX, VAWA and the Clery Act. Gallagher also urged staff and students to report any and all instances of sexual assault if they occur. 

“Our University is committed to actively fostering a culture that prevents sexual violence and protects the safety of our students, staff and faculty,” Gallagher said in the memo. “This type of culture requires actions of everyone.”

Gallagher sent the memo approximately seven months after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights began investigating sexual assault on college campuses. The department is currently investigating 95 colleges across the United States. Pitt is not under investigation, but other Pennsylvania schools, including Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State University, are. 

According to Pitt spokesperson John Fedele, the University is in full support of the students’ paper chain initiative.

“The University of Pittsburgh encourages its students to take action in support of causes and social issues that they feel strongly about,” Fedele said. “It’s inspiring to see such enthusiasm for the ‘It’s On Us’ campaign to end sexual assault on campus.” 

Although the chain is simply made from paper and staples, Crilly and Hoffmann expect it to have a stronger impact on campus than the average art project. 

“When the chain is finished, we hope the chain will act as a visual reminder that sexual assault is not tolerated on our campus and that we support survivors of sexual assault,” Crilly and Hoffmann said.

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