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‘This is my survivor love letter’: University campaign aims to change the culture around sexual violence

May was Sexual Violence Awareness Month in Alberta, and universities across Calgary are doing their part to show survivors of sexual assault that they’re supported.

The project, called “Dear Survivors” or the “Survivor Love Letter Campaign” is being run by advocates at the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University, and Bow Valley College. The aim is to encourage people to write letters to survivors to create a culture that believes and supports survivors. 

Carla Bertsch, the Sexual Violence Support Advocate at the University of Calgary, is one of the driving forces of the initiative. She said the idea was born in 2018, after the Alberta Government named May as Sexual Violence Awareness month. 

“It’s really to try and promote care and concern and compassion for those in our community who have experienced sexual violence,” said Bertsch.

“Sexual violence is usually so hidden in secrecy and shame, the conversations which emphasize its prevalence and commonality need to be highlighted.”

Cari Ionson is the Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator at Mount Royal University. She’s behind MRU’s involvement with the campaign, and says it was also inspired by a filmmaker in 2012.

“The Survivor Love Letter Campaign was started by artist and activist Tani Ikeda who, on the anniversary of her rape, she wrote a love letter to herself which ended with the words, ‘this is my survivor love letter,’ and posted it to social media. This was taken up by survivors and allies who were inspired to write their own survivor love letters,” said Ionson.

The campaign is now in its third year, and is always evolving. Bertsch said each year she and the other organizers add a different aspect or event. 

“The first year we held a panel discussion at the University of Calgary, and we brought in some community organizers. This year though we are offering a consent training,” said Bertsch.

Program targeted to university communities

Bertsch says the campaign is directed primarily towards university community members, which is primarily made up of students. 

“Of all the sexual assault in Canada 41 per cent were reported by students between the ages of 15-24, which is a really big population of the folks that we work with. Almost half of all assaults are happening with this kind of age demographic and student demographic,” explained Bertsch.

She said the campaign is something that’s likely to continue in the future because of the positive response to it.

“If you go to any of the websites, you can see some of the letters that have come in and they’re so beautiful and kind and authentic, and it’s just a really heartwarming kind of campaign,” said Bertsch.

“It’s really nice to get stories of compassion and support and empathy that switched the story from victim-blaming to more of focus on the people who’ve been harmed and their lives, and that they matter and that it wasn’t their fault,” said Bertsch.

COVID brought challenges and opportunities

Of course, COVID has added an additional challenge. In past years, people could write their letters on physical cards at stations in high-traffic areas of the universities. 

Bertsch said this was a great opportunity to encourage conversation around the issue of sexual violence.  

This year the “Dear Survivor” campaign shifted online. Bertsch admits this made having important conversations about stigmas around sexual violence, she adds that it did have some benefits.

“But the online part has been great in that it affords people who might not be on campuses to be a part of the campaign. I would see maybe doing a joint effort in the future once we’re back in person,” said Bertsch.

Ionson said the isolation brought on by the pandemic has definitely played a big role.

“While it is challenging to reach students, they are still on social media and engaging with MRU online platforms. In some ways, because people are more isolated, there may even be more willingness to engage,” said Ionson.

Ionson adds that she’s also noticed a difference in the kinds of responses the campaign gets.

“In the past, we would have booths and engage the community in writing letters in-person. While that was a great way to promote the campaign, we have noticed the letters that we receive now have been longer and more reflective as people perhaps have more time and privacy to write them,” said Ionson. 

It remains to be seen what next year’s Dear Survivor campaign will look like. Bertsch is certain it will continue to have positive effects throughout the city. 

“Whoever this might impact and whoever sees these messages I hope that they know we’re talking to them too,” said Bertsch.

Support for survivors of sexual violence and continues to be offered at Mount Royal, University of Calgary, Bow Valley College and throughout the city.