Amid a climate of skepticism, survivors of violence use t-shirts as a medium

The City College Cafeteria is decorated with 67 shirts advocating against domestic violence. Photo by Sarah Berjan/ the Guardsman.
The City College Cafeteria is decorated with 67 shirts advocating against domestic violence. Photo by Sarah Berjan/ the Guardsman.

By David Mamaril Horowitz

It was two days into Domestic Violence Awareness Month that President Donald Trump, to rallying cheers in Mississippi, ridiculed Dr. Blasey Ford for testifying that she was allegedly sexually assaulted by now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

     And it was two days later that City College’s program Project Survive hanged 67 t-shirts beside the cafeteria’s east windows. Each t-shirt, designed by a City College student, carries a message related to sexual or domestic violence.

     Every October day, window light has radiated through the array of t-shirts, illuminating messages such as “Let your voice be heard” and “I don’t blame myself.” Another reads, “The pain needs to stop.”

     Side-by-side with 64 other statements, they speak in solidarity to the prevalence of violence in society during a period when skepticism and mockery have become normalized responses to narratives of violence from America’s highest powers.

     “What’s happening in the Supreme Court right now doesn’t affirm and doesn’t validate the experiences of women and men, and people who are in between, who may have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault,” said EdianBlair Schlofield, a former City College student and member of Project Survive.

     City College student Dale Smith said the project gives survivors of violence a sense of hope, a feeling of community and an understanding that they’re not alone. Installed and known nationwide as the Clothesline Project, the practice emerged in the ’90s to raise the public’s awareness of domestic and sexual violence. The college has participated for more than a decade.

     “Not every survivor can speak about what happened to them,” said Olivia Baumgart, Project Survive’s Inter Club Council Representative. “But when you give them a paint brush, some glitter and a t-shirt, and allow them to be creative with their story without ever having to actually disclose it, that gives them an outlet to express the pain that they felt from what happened to them.”

     The concept of using t-shirts is a nod to times when neighbors were more close-knit. Women would secretively exchange conversation over their fences while drying clothes, according to the Clothesline Project website.

     Baugmart said the Clothesline Project gives a face to survivors’ stories, and the statistics.

     Yellow shirts hang in remembrance of physical assault or domestic violence survivors. Between 2003 and 2012, 15 percent of national violence was committed by an intimate partner, according to the Department of Justice.

     Red, pink and orange shirts honor survivors of rape or sexual assault. Across the states, 627,700 people are sexually assaulted annually, according to a report by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

     And white shirts commemorate those who were killed. In 2015, 928 women were killed by an intimate partner — or 2.54 women per day, according to homicide data collected by the FBI.

     Other colored shirts — blue, green, purple, brown, black and gray — have their own meanings that speak to the different types of violence.

     “I know a lot of survivors,” Baumgart said. “[The project] means the world to me because literally it is the world.”

     Telling stories through t-shirts allows survivors to bring the public into the private, Women’s Studies and Project Survive Coordinator Adele Failes Carpenter said. T-shirts also have added significance because they are constantly in contact with a person’s body, she said.

     But spreading those messages, even through clothing, is not easy for survivors of violence, Schlofield said.

     “Many people actually have to relive their experiences in a way that is traumatizing, [yet] cathartic and healing for them,” Schlofield said. “There is a contradiction of those feelings — between being liberated and empowered, and at the same time, feeling the experiences […] of their past.”

     He stressed that there is also great value in showing solidarity with people who may have had similar experiences, adding that he hoped for equal representation between women and men because many of their experiences are valid.

     Smith called it essential that people — and men, in particular — speak out and step up against violence to create an impact in preventing it.

     “It’s got to be a group effort to really make a change,” he said.

The Guardsman