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Berkeley Public Health releases commitment to cultivating a safe, respectful, and inclusive community

As part of a movement to create a nurturing, positive culture within the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, the School’s Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment (SVSH) Prevention Committee released a new Principles of Community Statement that outlines their goals to reduce harm, actively cultivate safe environments, affirm social justice within the community, and inspire other communities to do the same.

“The committee itself started as an outcome of working with Berkeley’s PATH to Care, which works for prevention and healing around sexual violence and sexual harassment,” said Marissa McKool, SVSH prevention committee chair and director of the Wallace Center for Maternal, Child, and Adolscent Health. “The [principles of community] statement is not specific to SVSH prevention but a statement to present to the entire school in how we want to treat each other and the principles we want to uphold in our community for safety and respect. It can be used by instructors, other committees, or by students. It’s a way for the school to commit to how we will treat each other.”

Beginning in fall 2019, the SVSH Prevention Committee worked on making this effort community-centered. They began by conducting surveys and bringing together focus groups representing each organizational level of Berkeley Public Health, including staff, faculty, students, and administration. In order to center the varied lived experiences and voices of these groups, the committee spent the past year drafting the community statement with the feedback from these focus groups.

“I think that we have a lot of work to do and are certainly far from being in the place that we aspire to be, but at the same time were at the forefront of doing this work. Maybe other departments will use this, and were happy to share,” said Seana Van Buren, assistant dean for administration and chief of staff at the School. “We hope that by investing into this work now we could serve as a model for how other schools and colleges at Cal can similarly bolster their prevention efforts.”

According to Van Buren, the SVSH Prevention Committee has a list of seven recommendations they’ve established as a framework for each year’s priorities. The committee has already worked on four of these recommendations, including establishing the committee, creating the community statement, making resources accessible, and expanding knowledge and skills when training graduate students.

Additional recommendations include using data collected by the School through any surveys, making sure that events by School of Public Health are safe and inclusive, and increasing prevention efforts in external environments such as internships, field research, and professional travel.

“Although it was the SVSH Prevention Committee that led the efforts, what you’ll see is that the community statement does not explicitly and solely focus on sexual harassment and sexual violence. What they recognized is that the principles of community statement need to be more foundational and need to address sexual violence and antiracism and disability rights and the whole spectrum on how we want to operate,” Van Buren said. “Even though we give effort to the SVSH Prevention Committee for leading the work, this goes further than the prevention of sexual violence and sexual harassment.”

Before the formation of the School’s SVSH Prevention Committee, the main mode of preventing sexual harassment was required training for faculty, staff, and graduate students each year.

But it was clear more needed to be done. According to the results of the campuswide MyVoice survey that was completed in 2018, those of marginalized sexual orientation, gender identity, and ethnic identity reported some of the highest rates of sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus, while privileged identities reported the lowest rates.

Those who experience harassment have an array of negative outcomes, such as “physical injury, digestive issues from chronic stress, and these issues can be long lasting,” McKool said. “It has an impact on the community because the experience of these harms creates a feeling of distrust, disrespect, and a lack of safety on the community level. That affects everyone.”

“Part of the reason to bring and increase prevention in house was because we know that sexual violence and sexual harassment is happening on campus and [our] survey confirms that and includes the School of Public Health, so there’s a need to address this,” McKool said. “Bringing this in-house…sends a message that the school cares.”

The SVSH Prevention Committee wanted to make sure that the community was highly involved, because the community can shape an environment that makes instances of sexual violence and harassment less common. It’s important to know that violence is preventable.

“Broadening our understanding about who is impacted by these issues, which is everyone, is important,” said Navya Pothamsetty, MPH ’21, SVSH Prevention Committee member. “Shifting from the idea that this doesn’t affect me personally because I haven’t experienced an incident of sexual violence before, to questions of what norms am I perpetuating and what institutional practices and policies make these issues unheard, is important.”

“Prevention is a really big part of public health,” she added. “Being intentional about the policies we’re talking about and being able to stand by the values in our statement is important instead of behaving by a culture that’s socialized us to act in ways that can be discriminatory, such as making offensive jokes or not intervening as a bystander.”

Building a culture that encourages us to get involved and be upstanders begins with viewing ourselves as a part of the greater community. The SVSH Prevention Committee is aiming to commit to these values to support survivors of sexual violence with a strong community response.

“We have gotten so many powerful responses from community members across our activities. At almost every graduate student training we do, one student always tells us how much this impacted them and how happy they were that this was being addressed,” McKool said. “Within the focus groups we heard that they felt the school was seeing them and were moved by the fact that the school was creating a statement to meet the needs of the community.”