Tirzah Blanche, program manager of Occidental College’s Project for a Sexual Assault-Free Environment (SAFE), has a lot on their plate. In the basement of Stewart-Cleland Hall, the office of their former role as project coordinator is conspicuously empty, with Blanche now sitting in the dimly lit office one door down. Blanche’s new position as program manager involves running most of the day-to-day operations at Project SAFE. As the Survivor Advocate, Blanche also provides confidential assistance to victims of sexual violence on campus. As announced via email, Project SAFE’s previous manager, Marianne Frapwell, left the office in April 2021. After several months serving as interim director, Blanche was officially selected Oct. 25.
“Project SAFE professional staff, historically, has [had] one person in charge of prevention — that’s a coordinator — and one person that’s in charge of advocacy,” Blanche said. “I work with people who are impacted by gender-based violence, power-based violence. As an advocate, I essentially help people to navigate the various structures, processes, things that they need to do to get their life back on track.”
Blanche said Project SAFE faced significant challenges during the early months of the pandemic, as workers were furloughed at 50 percent pay, while training and outreach were complicated by the online format.
“When we had to go to a virtual, that sucked,” Blanche said. “We did our PA [Programming Assistant] training in 2020, completely virtual: that’s 80 hours of training, which is a lot to do on Zoom.”
However, recent changes in leadership and a push by student activists on campus have made Blanche hopeful for the future of the program, Blanche said. Despite hurdles during the pandemic, Project SAFE is finally rounding a corner.
Blanche pointed to recent protests, organized by the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) in November 2021 to advocate for greater accountability from the administration, as one positive sign. And with the recent appointments of Dean Rob Flot in 2017 and President Harry Elam, Jr. in 2020, Blanche said the college seems to be making strides in the right direction.
“I think with the new administration, there’s just been a new a renewed interest in our approach to preventing sexual violence and dating violence on campus,” Blanche said.
The administration is making efforts to address OSAC’s demands in particular. In an announcement Nov. 16, for example, President Elam detailed a new Sexual Misconduct Training and Education Working Group — of which Blanche is a member — to review the college’s programming and policies regarding sexual assault education on campus. Blanche also noted possible changes to the school’s first-year orientation curriculum.
“We’re looking at [a Project SAFE] orientation presentation for first-year students — or potentially for more than just first-year students,” Blanche said. “That is something that also came out of the listening sessions we had last semester that we co-hosted with OSAC.”
Despite plans to expand Project SAFE’s program offerings, however, much remains to be done in getting the department back to full capacity. Junko Anderson ’21, a former PA who is currently an assistant to Blanche, explained that a lack of resources has been a recurring problem in the department.
“When Marianne [Frapwell] left Oxy, Tirzah [Blanche] was the only remaining professional staff,” Anderson said. “Having been repeatedly underfunded and understaffed at various points in my time at Project SAFE, I’ve certainly felt a bit slighted by the previous administration.”
As program lead, Blanche has been a positive advocate for both students and the program itself, Anderson said. As a former PA, Anderson especially respects their commitment to the employees at Project SAFE.
“One thing I really admire about Tirzah is her investment in the PAs’ growth and professional development,” Anderson said. “She’s really encouraging of all of our individual pet projects and passions.”
Blanche also announced the hiring of a new Weekend Advocate, Téresa Mejia, to offer additional weekend support starting Feb. 12. That role, Mejia said, was envisioned to take some of the responsibility off Blanche and student staff.
“There were things that were happening on the weekends that the students couldn’t get support [for],” Mejia said. “The PAs are available; but sometimes, [students] would like to speak to somebody that’s actually a part of the office, who can give them a little bit more information about resources, or accompaniments to medical appointments, or law enforcement.”
The college is still in the process of hiring a replacement for Blanche’s previous role as program coordinator and prevention education specialist. According to Blanche, the college is working to fill that role in the coming weeks. As a former coordinator themself, Blanche is especially interested in expanding Project SAFE’s available educational programs.
“She was a certified Counselor Advocate before joining Project SAFE,” Anderson said. “So the bulk of her work was programming and education-related.”
The Project SAFE Office is currently planning for Take Back the Week, a yearly educational series organized each April as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The program aims to explore issues of sexual violence through workshops and advocacy events, and is typically overseen by the Program Coordinator.
“I’m hopeful and excited that we’ll be able to have someone start within a month [as Program Coordinator],” Blanche said. “Take Back the Week is coming up in April, and we need someone in that role to oversee [it].”
According to Blanche, Project SAFE’s main mission will be supporting survivors, but the program will also try to increase conversations about consent regarding how it is practiced within different social circles.
“Historically, Project SAFE has been here to support survivors, and we will always be here, foremost, to support survivors,” Blanche said. “But I also think, especially from just my last few months on campus here, that there is very much a hunger amongst students for more robust conversations about consent.”
This article was updated at 9:34 p.m. March 2 to clarify that all Project SAFE programming assistants are student workers. In a previous version of this article, programming assistants were referred to as volunteers.