UWL Social Justice Week 2023: Just a “nice” week?

Image taken from the UWL Social Justice Week page.

Image taken from the UWL Social Justice Week page.

Anna Fischer, Social Justice Reporter

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse kicked off its 7th Annual Social Justice Week (SJW) on Tuesday, April 4, and ran through Thursday, April 6.

This three-day event was filled with educational seminars, keynote presentations, art exhibits, and more, to help engage students and form partnerships with social justice organizations in the La Crosse community.

Falling within the same month as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), the theme of this year’s SJW was ‘The Strength of Our Stories: Reviving our Communities by Amplifying Lost Voices.’

“This year the theme is about amplifying voices and really calling to attention historically marginalized voices,” said UWL’s Violence Prevention Specialist Blythe McConaughey, “and certainly survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence apply to that.”

McConaughey said that instances of harassment and abuse often happen over social media, as well as in the form of “stalking.”

“One thing that I see really frequently in my office is someone who’s with an abusive partner and they block them on everything, and then they keep creating accounts so that they can keep commenting on their posts and DM’ing them,” explained McConaughey, “and they’d never ever leave them alone.”

She said the “location settings” on devices and within apps are also creating safety issues.

“It’s like a textbook. It’s like they’re reading a manual, it’s the same every time, and it doesn’t matter what gender or race the perpetrator or the victim is.”

Local organization LevelUP La Crosse has partnered with UWL Violence Prevention to help end domestic abuse and sexual violence through their work.

LevelUP Executive Director Tom Berkedal said this group is all about educating people and creating allies.

“Approximately 90% of perpetrators are men, but approximately 90% of men are not perpetrators,” said Berkedal, “So our focus is on the 90 that aren’t, and encourage them to step up and intervene.”

LevelUP is an organization with a mission to engage men of all ages in a partnership to end domestic and sexual violence.

They also started the ‘White Ribbon Pledge,’ which is a “vow” against violence towards women and children, signed electronically through their page.

“We recognize that we’re a group of guys that are fairly ignorant on this topic,” continued Berkedal, “So we lean on partners in the community that are the experts, that work with domestic violence and sexual assault. We need women to be involved with our group to help educate the guys.”

According to Berkedal, LevelUP is looking to evolve into more of a “student-run” organization, pending next fall.

“Our organization has been led by local adults, but our audiences have been about 90% young people. So, we kind of came to the realization that maybe the leadership should be young people, for example, college-age students.”

Another SJW leader and presenter focusing on abuse and violence prevention are a nationally recognized speaker and New York Times bestselling author of If I Am Missing or Dead: a sister’s story of love, murder and liberation, Janine Latus.

“This [presentation] was scheduled for a couple of years back,” said Latus, “but got delayed a couple of times; so now, I’m doing 7 events in 3 days.”

In addition to speaking at UWL, Latus also met with Gundersen Health System professionals, local sponsors, high schoolers from Logan, Central, and Aquinas, and more.

“You don’t want to make somebody who’s feeling healthy relive something in an unhealthy way by burbling it up,” Latus said while talking about presenting to people of all different ages, “But there is not a victim out there who isn’t thinking about it.”

The well-known public speaker related the discomfort most feel when talking about abuse and violence, to that of someone grieving a loss.

“They’re already sad, and they’re already thinking about it. So, if I can get people actually talking about sexual assault, domestic violence, and emotional abuse and jealousy and controlling behavior and technological, you know, then we can get their minds to open up differently about what’s appropriate behavior,” said Latus.

Associate Professor Peter Marina in the sociology and criminal justice department spoke on Wednesday, April 5 in the Student Union.

His presentation ‘Transforming Police Into a Human Rights Organization’ focused on human rights and social justice in our society, policing, and “the power of community.”

“All of our institutions in society can transform into human rights organizations,” said Marina, “While talking is always important, it is time to impart change. Talking about social justice is important, but not when it doesn’t lead to real social change.”

Marina spoke about professors in the 1960s who joined the civil rights movement and “were part of the struggle, and part of the fight.”

“They were the ones fighting the cops too, they were the ones putting bricks into banks, engaging in civil disobedience, fighting alongside the people that they were fighting for; and if they were not fighting with the people, they were against the people, it’s just that simple,” said Marina.

Marina said that part of the reason he chose to speak during SJW was to “go beyond talking and engage in changing the real material circumstances of our society.”

“The fear is that everyone says all these nice things, they talk about social justice, everyone pats each other on the back…and then forgets about it until the next year. If that’s what’s going to happen, then it’s worthless.”

Campus Resources:

  • University Police: 789-9999 or 911
  • City of La Crosse Police: 785-5962 or 911
  • Great Rivers 211 (dial 211) or 1-800-362-TALK (8255)
  • Gundersen Health System Domestic Abuse/Sexual Assault Program Hotline: 608-775-5950
  • Mayo Health System Safe Path: 608-392-7804
  • New Horizons Shelter: 608-791-2600 (local) or toll-free at 1-888-231-0066
  • WI Hmong Family Strengthening Helpline: 1-877-740-4292