Takeaways from a Virtual Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent

Seniors Miranda Aebersold-Burke (left) and Alexa Goldfarb (right) pose for a photo at the 2019 Consent Summit Resource Fair (Source: GDS Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent website)

Despite the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, GDS’ fifth annual Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent took place virtually on November 20 and 21 in a relatively standard format. Just under 400 summit presenters, faculty members and students signed up to attend, and over 30 high schools in 20 states and Canada were represented. The summit united these individuals with a mission to help eradicate sexual assault and promote environments where consent is indispensible and required.

The birth of the summit can be traced back to 2016, when Tyce Christian ’18 proposed a new track for GDS’ Policy and Advocacy Institute. Eight students participated in the program the following summer. As described on the Consent Summit’s website, those students learned about “sexual assault in our country and the culture that continues to promote it while silencing survivors.” At the beginning of the following school year, the students planned a Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent at GDS because they wanted other adolescents to be given the chance to engage with similar experts on the issue.

The first summit had 150 presenters, students and faculty in attendance and was limited to D.C.-area independent schools. At the time, the summit team was unsure whether the event would take place on a yearly basis. However, because the summit received rave reviews from attendees, the team decided that it would be offered annually, and to a wider group of people. 

The summit began this year at 4:00 on Friday, November 20, with a panel of survivors of sexual assault. To High School Counselor Amy Killy, one of the faculty organizers of the summit, it is important that the event kick off with the survivor panel because for students “to really take action, they need to have an emotional connection with people who have experienced sexual assault and come out of it to advocate on behalf of other survivors.” 

Attendees of the Summit heard from three survivors. Two of them―Rachel Mackinnon and Kaitlin Durkin―work at Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment (PAVE), a Chicago-based organization hoping to end sexual violence and strengthen communities that support survivors. Samantha Carwyn, the third panelist, is a passionate advocate who focuses her efforts on uplifting marginalized individuals, including children in the foster care system. Attendees of the summit learned from these women about their experiences as advocates promoting just and safe communities free from violence and abuse.  

After hearing from the panelists, participants attended four different sessions, each of which included 14 to 16 different workshops to choose from. Workshops focused on topics such as “#MeToo At School: Using Title IX to End Sexual Harassment,” “LGBTQ Inclusive Sex Ed: Looking at Consent Through a Queer- and Trans-Affirming Lens” and “Boys Leading Boys: A Young Man’s Role in the Fight to End Sexual Assault.” 

Bobby Asher, GDS’ Director of Student Life and Wellness, hosted a workshop called “The Neurobiology of Trauma.” His workshop focused on why some survivors freeze while being personally violated. “The survivors’ autonomic nervous systems essentially shut down against their will when they feel they are being abused,” Asher said. To him, it is essential that people become aware of the biological phenomenon because survivors often feel guilty for not fighting back against their abusers.  

The summit concluded on Saturday with a keynote speech by Cheyenne Tyler Jacobs. Jacobs is a community organizer, spoken word artist and author who works to tackle issues of racism, sexual violence and homelessness. She spoke about the intersection between race and sexual violence. 

Senior Maya Fawaz, an organizer and attendee, noted one concern Jacobs addressed that was particularly impactful to her (Fawaz): “She said that a lot of Black women are scared to report their assaults if they were committed by a Black man because they are cognizant of the fact that the justice system is not in favor of Black men. Basically, Black men will be treated disproportionally worse than their white counterparts.” Fawaz said Jacobs pushed the attendees to reflect on the complexities of managing sexual assault. 

Looking back on the summit, many organizers and attendees cited the survivor panel as a highlight. But for Amy Killy, her concluding conversation with GDS seniors after the summit was the best part of that mid-November weekend. “Being able to see the growth of students who have been involved over the years and how much they have given to the summit and the legacy they are leaving behind felt like a really proud moment for me,” Killy said. After speaking with the seniors, she felt “particularly full” inside. She believes that their work organizing the summit is only a launching point for them and that there is no telling what these seniors will accomplish in the future with their strong passion and commitment to creating positive change in their communities. She is excited to see what is ahead for this group of individuals as they enter the next chapter of their lives.