WYSE week serves to empower and bring together women

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Hannah Wakefield (sophomore), left, and Ahladini Veerina (sophomore), right, listening to instructions at Lili Bernard’s Anti-Rape Art Therapy Workshop at Occidental College in Los Angeles on April 4, 2018. Molly Kauffman/The Occidental

The Occidental chapter of the organization Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE) hosted a series of events promoting the club’s mission: to empower and support female-identifying students April 2–5. The week included a screening of the documentary “Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution,” a flower sale and an anti-rape art therapy workshop with artist, activist and Bill Cosby survivor Lili Bernard. WYSE is a nationwide organization founded in 1992 to help young women make empowering, healthy choices, according to their website. The club has been active on Occidental’s campus for 25 years, but this is the first year the club hosted a WYSE week.

“The intention of WYSE week is to celebrate women in our community and to celebrate an amazing organization that empowers women of all ages,” Gabriella Anson (senior), executive board member of WYSE, said.

WYSE is an all-female-identifying organization that mentors middle school girls weekly on topics associated with growing up, such as relationships, school, puberty and drugs and alcohol. The organization empowers the mentors as well as the mentees, according to WYSE member Eleanor Hall (junior).

“When women build one another up, they mutually grow and accomplish more together,” Hall said. “As much as we hope to serve as role models and mentor figures for the middle school girls, often they are the ones that teach us and help us grow. That mutual love and support is what makes WYSE so special.”

Lili Bernard explaining the importance of art in her Anti-Rape Art Therapy Workshop at Occidental College in Los Angeles on April 4, 2018. Molly Kauffman/The Occidental

WYSE member Ahladini Veerina (sophomore) agreed that the camaraderie and support is an essential part of WYSE.

“I hope [WYSE week] was an opportunity to recognize and celebrate women and for women to celebrate and remember to take care of themselves,” Veerina said.

Following a screening of the film April 2, the club hosted an anti-rape art therapy workshop Tuesday evening in Fowler with Bernard. Bernard was one of the women who came forward as a survivor of sexual assault perpetrated by Bill Cosby.

Politics professor and WYSE faculty advisor Caroline Heldman worked with Bernard on multiple women’s rights projects. The two collaborated to abolish the statute of limitations for sexual assault in California. The statute of limitations previously held that after 10 years, survivors were unable to report rape to authorities, but now, survivors can take legal action at any time before their 40th birthday, according to the new Californian law. Heldman also attended and reported on the Cosby trial that Bernard was a key witness in. Most recently, the two co-founded the movement #ERANow, a new campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would add women’s rights into the constitution.

“I’m a senior and [the anti-rape art therapy workshop] was one of the best activities I have done in my four years here,” Anson said. “Lili created such a loving and safe space for us to make art about trauma and healing. We can’t wait to share our experience with the middle school girls that we mentor.”

While Bernard was contemplating whether or not to go public with the abuse she suffered from Bill Cosby, a friend suggested she talk to professor Heldman, according to Bernard.

Art supplies for Lili Bernard’s Anti-Rape Art Therapy Workshop at Occidental College in Los Angeles on April 4, 2018. Molly Kauffman/The Occidental

“I had told [my friend] that I would consider going public if my speaking out could help people and maybe I could get involved in changing rape laws,” Bernard said. “And so he said, ‘Oh you have to meet my friend Caroline Heldman.’”

Bernard gave her first anti-rape art healing workshop in one of professor Heldman’s classes Fall 2015. The workshop she organized for WYSE week was called Silent No More and used painting and dialogue to help participants express themselves, according to Bernard.

Bernard said that she was not involved in any women’s rights activism during her college years at Cornell University. She said this was because college students did not have the same type of awareness surrounding women’s right issues as they do now.

“I think [women’s] organizations are critical because when women come together in large numbers, we can be much more powerful than to just have one woman speak up,” Bernard said. “So there’s power in numbers. I think it’s important because it’s necessary to shift the culture away from misogyny and towards believing women.”