The Project for a Sexual Assault-Free Environment (Project SAFE) program manager Tirzah Blanche announced in an email Feb. 11 that the program has hired its very first Weekend Advocate, Téresa Mejia. According to Blanche, the position was established in response to increasing student requests for confidential advocacy services over the weekends.
“As students returned to campus after COVID, we were really seeing that people needed support seven days a week,” Blanche said. “It was not meeting students’ needs to only have the advocate available as soon as Monday morning if something happens on Friday or Saturday night.”
Calls for these resources were highlighted in last semester’s demonstration hosted by Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) Nov. 12, which called for more accountability and brought forth a formal list of demands. One of OSAC’s listed demands was that two more Project SAFE confidential survivor advocates be hired by the end of the 2021–2022 academic year, with non-white or queer applicants being prioritized. OSAC also asked for campus resources to be more inclusive of survivors from marginalized groups, demanding specialized sensitivity training for Project SAFE and Title IX workers.
Days after this demonstration, President Harry J. Elam announced Nov. 16 his commitment to providing confidential support every day of the week by the end of the Spring 2022 semester. Following the protest was a series of four listening sessions hosted by Project SAFE and OSAC, in which students were able to express their needs directly to Project SAFE staff, according to Blanche.
Blanche said these listening sessions were immensely helpful in determining how to best provide resources for students.
“I was really able to hear some of the particular concerns and needs of students that I hadn’t known about,” Blanche said. “The plan moving forward is really about directly responding to and directly answering the stated needs that students are expressing.”
In addition to Blanche and Mejia, Project SAFE employs Student Programming Assistants (PAs) who have an important role – directly connecting with other students as peer educators who lead prevention, consent and other sexual assault-related trainings for sports teams and campus organizations. They also run programming throughout the year including “Take Back The Week,” which focuses on sexual assault awareness and will take place April 11–14. According to PA Mia Villegas (senior), while PAs are happy to help their peers in any way possible, they are not trained to be confidential advocates — as a result, the new Weekend Advocate will achieve the goal of providing access to professional advocacy seven days a week.
“Last semester, because we didn’t have the resources, the PAs were getting reached out to a lot individually by students for support, like advocate support over the weekend,” Villegas said. “We realized that students probably needed a fully trained advocate on the weekends.”
According to Mejia, after graduating from the University of San Francisco in 2016, they found a volunteer position with the non-profit organization Peace Over Violence. Mejia said they received a full-time position with the organization in 2018 and served as an on-call emergency coordinator, working with dispatchers to send volunteers to provide in-person assistance to survivors.
Through Peace Over Violence, Mejia said they later began working as a case manager for the Family Justice Center; there they worked with LAPD detectives who were working with families dealing with domestic violence and sex crimes. When assisting these families, Mejia said they provided emotional support, accompanied them to court and helped them get restraining orders.
Before coming to Occidental, Mejia said they worked as a campus advocate at CalTech; they worked with the Title IX office and served as a starting point for students who wanted to find out more about their options concerning reporting. According to Mejia, they planned many self-care events and gained interest in facilitating events focused on healing and conversation about ways to cope with stress at the start of the pandemic.
According to Mejia, many of the students they worked with at CalTech did not trust the Title IX office.
“I started thinking about how to be a better service to students,” Mejia said. “I see that they have a hard time reporting to Title IX. But they also feel like that’s the only option they have in order to get this idea of justice.”
According to Mejia, they are currently in graduate school at the California Institute of Integral Studies, pursuing a master’s degree in women’s spirituality and social justice. Through these programs, Mejia said they hope to answer the question of how to better serve the students they are working to support.
“It’s more of my journey to knowing that I could show up for people, especially survivors coming from a place of healing, honoring our bodies, honoring our truths and finding and paving our way through trauma that we’ve all experienced,” Mejia said.
Mejia learned about Project SAFE while working with Peace Over Violence but did not know much about the program. Mejia said they wanted to continue their survivor advocacy work with college students but needed something part-time while attending graduate school. When they saw Project SAFE was hiring a Weekend Advocate, they applied.
At this point in their career and time at Occidental, Mejia says their goals as an advocate are changing.
“I definitely was the type of advocate that wanted survivors to report things and go by the book,” Mejia said. “I feel like my advocacy is more about healing now. I’m not trying to pressure anybody into filing a Title IX report if they don’t want to.”
Moving forward, both Blanche and Mejia have similar goals of building safer, more informed and supportive communities on campus.
“Imagine if we had an advocacy-trained or a Project SAFE-trained student in every residence hall, who can be available to students for peer support or just basic information and getting their questions answered,” Blanche said. “Those students can go out into the Oxy community, utilize that knowledge, and be change agents and rape culture fighting warriors.”
According to Mejia, one of Project SAFE’s main goals is to create a strong community of support.
“I envision Project SAFE building communities, or a community of students that can support each other, in these types of situations,” Mejia said. “A community that honors healing, but also honors the fact that we need to take accountability sometimes.”
Mejia is available Saturday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Project SAFE office, where students can either walk in or schedule an appointment via email or through an online sign-up sheet. As a confidential advocate, they provide emotional support, resources on and off campus and crisis intervention.
Emmons 24/7 Confidential Hotline : (323) 341-4141
Survivor Advocate: email@example.com
The Project SAFE/Survivor Advocate office located on the bottom floor of Stewart-Cleland Hall
Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition: firstname.lastname@example.org