A small crowd marches across Belmont’s campus, bearing glow sticks and signs, shouting chants along with the beat of a drum.
“What do we want? Safe streets! When do we want it? Now!”
As they march up 15th Avenue and across Belmont’s campus, the marchers’ voices echo around campus, garnering stares from people walking by.
“The people united, will never be defeated!”
They keep marching — past the Beaman Student Life Center, down Belmont Boulevard and up past the library.
“Claim our bodies, claim our right. Take a stand, take back the night!”
They march as part of a worldwide movement called Take Back the Night, which dates back to 1960s Europe and focuses on taking a stand against sexual assault and sexual violence.
At Belmont, the event started three years ago, but this year is especially significant because of the “Me Too” movement and the growing conversation around the country about sexual assault, said Bridge Builders President Hope Gipson.
“I don’t think the ‘Me Too’ movement has spread to college campuses yet. I haven’t seen a lot of change on college campuses. I haven’t seen people facing more severe consequences since the ‘Me Too’ movement started. I haven’t seen a closer look at sexual harassment of professors or sexual harassment of administration,” Gipson said. “So I think there’s a lot to go in order to get it to reach the university level.”
Before the march, the event on Thursday night started with a service in the chapel, featuring music, a spoken word piece and a speech from Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene House and Thistle Farms.
Stevens encouraged students to take advantage of the influence they have in the current political climate.
“I have never in my adult life heard people interested in students’ voices like I’m hearing right now. This is an amazing time. With both ‘Me Too’ and the aftermath of horrific violence in our schools, reporters are going to schools to ask, ‘what do you think?’” she said. “So my question to the students right now, is what do you want to say? What do you want your voice to be? Where is your voice the most effective?”
In her work with Thistle Farms, Stevens has witnessed the power of women coming together to support each other, she said.
“That’s what I think this night is about,” she said. “Wherever you’re coming from, whatever your story is, whatever you feel like your contribution is, you are the light. You are what keeps hope alive. You are what keeps people safe. You are what creates community.”
Stevens’ work at Thistle Farms focuses on women survivors, but Christy Ridings, Belmont’s associate university minister and director of spiritual formation, reminded students that this night was for everyone.
Estimates suggest that one in four women experience sexual assault and sexual violence, but so do one in six men, she said.
Gender Equality Movement President Kat Carlton closed out the service with a call to action, asking students to take a stand for issues both in the world and on Belmont’s campus.
“We will not stop until our faculty is diverse and until people can be out and proud at Belmont. And I need to also say, black lives matter. Queer lives matter,” she said.
With those words, the service ended, but the night was only just beginning.
Carlton led the group out of the building, hitting on a drum and shouting chants.
Last year the marchers had some problems with heckling, but this year they were flanked by Campus Security officers who want to make sure students can feel safe on campus, said Officer Will VanBergen.
The march ended at the Bell Tower, where students traded their glow sticks for electric candles and their chants for vulnerable sharing of their own experiences with sexual assault.
As students told their stories, phrases like “I don’t know you, but I love you” and “We believe you” flitted across the group.
Having a space where people can be vulnerable and have their stories heard is extremely valuable for people who are often silenced when they try to speak out about their experiences, Gipson said.
“We live in a society where, even with the ‘Me Too’ movement spreading, I believe that there are a lot of spaces where there is still a great deal of silence. I believe there’s still a lot of silence for LGBT people who are facing sexual assault,” she said. “We need to recognize that everybody’s story is different and everybody has a different experience. And if somebody doesn’t have a specific experience that they’re not less valid.”
Carlton closed out the night by reminding everyone there to support each other in the fight against sexual assault.
“And make sure no one walks home alone tonight.”