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Wanda Swan: Preventing violence, supporting survivors, building 'Respect'

As director of the Respect Program, Wanda Swan oversees Emory's central hub for interpersonal violence prevention and survivor support. She traces her advocacy roots back to her mother — "the first feminist I'd ever met, though she wouldn’t call herself that."

As a child, Wanda Swan remembers her mother telling her that she had a special quality, a skill at “sitting with the suffering.”

Growing up in a small Central Mississippi farming community, she could easily see suffering around her, from stark poverty and interpersonal violence to economic disparities and gender inequities.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Swan gravitated toward work that seeks to address just those kinds of raw societal wounds.

As director of the Respect Program in Emory’s Office of Health Promotion, Swan oversees interpersonal violence prevention programming, bystander education and survivor resiliency and advocacy initiatives throughout campus.

It’s a position she stepped into this summer, following nearly two years as the program’s associate director of advocacy — work that was informed by her experiences in campus prevention education and survivor support at both Vanderbilt and Mississippi State universities.

October is Relationship Violence Awareness Month, and the Respect Program invites the Emory community to show support for survivors of relationship violence by joining in a Take Back the Night march and rally on Monday, Oct. 24 (see sidebar).

Amid preparations, Swan sat down with Emory Report to talk about how she came to engage with work around interpersonal violence and the direction of Emory’s Respect Program.

Where does your story begin?

Home is Goodman, Mississippi, literally a town with no stoplights. I grew up dirt poor in the poorest county in the state of Mississippi. I also come from a very big family — my mom had three children, but my grandmother had 18. That’s actually something that helps me as an advocate today.

I’m highly adaptable to situations and building rapport with people and navigating politics, even within a family (laughs). Being able to handle so many different personality types was Ground Zero for me in learning how to relate to people and do this work.

What were your early influences?

Growing up, my generation was probably the first in the family that didn’t have to pick cotton or engage in some form of sharecropping to support itself. I was surrounded by economic disparity, violence and gender equity issues rooted in strict religious doctrine on a daily basis. My own home was not always free from interpersonal violence either. That was my beginning. That was my norm.

But then there was my mother, who was the first feminist I’d ever met — though she wouldn’t call herself that. She consciously made a decision to provide a space where my sisters and I could be anything we wanted to be. My mom just gave us permission to be free, curious, well-read and wondering children — no gender stereotypes, no social-constructed norms and plenty of open conversation. It was a beautiful gift in what could sometimes be a dark time.

What was your earliest exposure to advocacy?

My mom was the one who took in and supported people who were impacted by violence and oppression, which continues to be a huge issue in our county. Her philosophy was, “Oh, we have more people coming? I’ll just add more water to the soup.” She’s always been a resource and an advocate. That was a pivotal experience for me to see that growing up.

How did you find your own way toward violence prevention?

I was attending Mississippi State, pursuing a master’s degree in English and hoping to get a graduate assistantship to help pay tuition, when I found an opening in the campus sexual assault office. At first, I was just clocking in and out, treating it like a work-study job. Then a switch flipped when I realized that sexual violence is an epidemic and found myself wondering why people weren’t more aware and alarmed.

Taking classes in women’s and gender studies helped me to connect to violence prevention work. Working with the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault, I saw strong black women doing this work on a state-wide platform. I’d never seen that before. When I saw these black women in one of the most racist states in the country daring to save people, I knew I needed to figure this out.

How did you do that?

I started attending statewide meetings with my department’s director and gained insight about what was happening at other universities in Mississippi. It was a great opportunity to collaborate across campuses. And my interest just grew.

One day, the executive director for the Mississippi Coalition asked me to write a $300,000 campus grant that would provide sexual assault prevention and training resources for my campus and qualify the coalition as a national technical assistance provider. At the time, my university was dismantling our current provider model — they had already minimized our available services. When we learned that we were awarded the grant, a dedicated center was created on campus for relationship violence prevention and outreach, which is still there.

What drew you to Emory?

After managing the grant at Mississippi State for nearly two years, I went to Vanderbilt, where I was eventually able to help create the Project Safe Center, a free-standing center dedicated to campus violence prevention and crisis response. I was also able to hone my skillset as a crisis-response advocate. I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of leaving Vanderbilt until my Emory Campus Life interview. I presented twice to a packed room of people who were interested in and knowledgeable about campus violence prevention. That was really attractive to me. Usually, coming into spaces like this, you have to make people care. Here, they already cared and knew what was at stake.

Where are things headed for the Respect Program?

Sexual assault, especially on college campuses, has been having a national moment. We are in the middle of a civil rights movement that impacts how this work is done, how legislation is created, what type of resources we are able to provide. Universities have greater access to resources and information about the root causes of violence than we’ve ever had before. And we’re all struggling to get it right.

I work with students directly impacted by sexual and relationship violence. I like to think that we’re changing conversations. This is a generation that is actively standing against rape culture in a way that has never happened before.

The Respect Program understands that and is making a conscious effort to guide that change on campus. As a result, we have widened our scope to serve this community as a program dedicated to anti-oppression work. We aim to end violence by ending oppression. And as an institution, Emory is taking proactive steps, providing the resources to expand and elevate sexual assault prevention, which is a huge leap in the right direction.

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