The TRAILBLAZERS series highlights the intersectional identities of activists and changemakers in the gender-based violence and domestic/sexual violence prevention movements. For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we worked with No More to highlight activists working to end sexual violence.
Meet Dana Bolger
Break the Cycle is pleased to introduce our readers to Dana Bolger as a TRAILBLAZER in the anti-sexual violence movement. Dana is a co-founder of Know Your IX, a national youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence in school. You may have seen her writing in publications like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Nation or seen her testifying before the United States Senate. While Dana isn’t educating young people on the importance of Title IX and stopping sexual violence, she’s a student at Yale Law School and a Senior Editor at Feministing.com. Read on to see how Dana and a friend started a respected organization and why she believes anti-prison politics help make our schools and communities safer places.
Why did you initially get involved with the Gender-Based Violence Movement or Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault prevention?
It started from a personal place. When I was in school, I was raped and stalked by someone I trusted. When I reported it to my dean, he encouraged me to take time off, go home, rest up, and get a job at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. I thought his response was insensitive but I didn’t know I could fight back, or how. Eventually, a friend of a friend connected me with the pro bono attorneys at the Victim Rights Law Center. They told me survivors have rights. They said it’s against the law for a school to pressure a student into leaving, simply for reporting sexual violence, and that knowledge changed everything. A year later, a friend of mine, Alexandra Brodsky, and I founded Know Your IX, an organization centered on the idea that if every student in the United States knew they had a right to an education free from gender violence, they’d be empowered to demand their schools respect it. Four years later, I’m now in law school, getting the skills I need to help student victims stay in school and learn.
Based on your own intersecting identities and the experiences that come with that, what do you see as 1) the greatest accomplishments of the movement so far and 2) the challenges that we still face?
I don’t think there’s a single national unified movement. But in my little corner of the anti-GBV universe, I’ve been impressed with how young organizers have centered their activism around an anti-prison, anti-police politics. That’s not to say, in our world of severely constrained options, that individual victims shouldn’t go to the cops if that’s what they need to feel safe. But as a principle and a politics for our organizing, I’m glad to see so many young people committed to the idea that prisons haven’t helped those of us who have been hurt, the people who hurt us, or our communities. We have to look beyond them to make our schools safe and just. One of the issues we’re constantly fighting is this idea that, "oh schools aren’t getting it right, why don’t we just get them out of this altogether and turn everything over to the cops?” I think that’s borne out of a lot of ignorance—ignorance of the fact that police aren’t any better (and a lot of the time make victims less safe) and ignorance of what student survivors actually want and need in the wake of violence, which often isn’t to see their ex in jail, but to get free therapy and moved into a new dorm.
At Know Your IX, we end up spending half our time mobilizing against “mandatory police referral” bills—legislation that would require schools to turn victims’ rape cases over to the cops, without their consent. These bills are bad for so many reasons, and they’re especially tone deaf when we’re having simultaneous national conversations around police brutality and this country’s deeply unjust immigration system. In the age of Trump, I think there’s the real possibility that some of these commitments will go on the chopping block. As the new administration threatens women and people of color, liberals are already scrambling to increase hate crimes penalties and pass other well-intentioned but ultimately really regressive legislation in response. I hope we can avoid the mistakes of the ‘80s and '90s and resist the idea that the only way to take our harms seriously is to further criminalize them.
What specific message or advice would you like to send to young people who are in or want to be a part of the movement?
Learn the law and know your rights but don’t let your demands be constrained by what the law says you deserve. The best organizing that I’ve seen reads more into the law than it strictly requires. It’s aspirational and capacious and it moves forward our thinking of what's possible, of what justice can and should look like.
Like Dana, Break the Cycle believes that survivors are the experts of their own experience and that we need to center policies, procedures, and services around THEIR needs and desires. If you live in the D.C. area, Break the Cycle offers legal services to young people 12 -24 who have experienced violence in their relationships, and we can help you. We also love Dana's advice for young people - don’t accept the status quo. If something isn’t just, you have every right to fight for what you truly believe in. That’s what the young people in our Let’s Be Real movement believe, and Break the Cycle gives them the leadership spaces to do so. Thank you, Dana, for sharing your insight and experience with us!
Stay tuned for our next TRAILBLAZERS feature and read our past features here.