Shelterhouse brings nationwide “What were you wearing?” exhibit to Midland

“I was wearing a sari…”

“Pajamas.”

“Khakis and a dress shirt.”

These are just a few excerpts from the stories that greeting locals who walked into the student union at Northwood University on April 9. Each anonymous submission has been collected from a survivor of sexual assault, describing what it is they were wearing at the time.

The walls are dotted with descriptions and outfits to match: boxers, jeans and a t-shirt, even a little girl’s Frozen pajamas. This is a cross section of the experiences highlighted in a week long art installation in Midland put on by Shelterhouse titled “What were you wearing?”

“It’s quite a powerful exhibit, which has been brought to a number of locations across the Midwest in the past four years,” says Ally Gajsiewicz, Education and Prevention Facilitator at Shelterhouse. “It has received a lot of media attention recently, and we think it is going to be really impactful for our community.”

From April 9 through 12, Shelterhouse staff worked to bring the traveling exhibit to their local community. The project showcased outfits, which were pulled together to represent anonymous submissions from survivors of sexual assault. The purpose: to debunk the myth that what someone was wearing mattered.

Descriptions from survivors about their experiences lined the room

“One of the most prolific questions victims are asked is: what were you wearing,” says Gajsiewicz. “And, that is usually followed by ‘what were you drinking’… Implying -- what did you do to prompt this?”

The project, inspired by a poem from Dr. Mary Simmerling, originated at the University of Arkansas in 2013 and has since been traveling to various locations around the country. Midland County Prosecutor, J. Dee Brooks, who has been working on sexual assault cases for twenty five years, read the poem aloud to kick off the installation and event.

Midland County Prosecutor J. Dee Brooks opening the event

“It is happening in all segments of our society,” says Brooks. “What this exhibit really shows is that it’s often just ordinary people wearing ordinary clothes — a little girl’s pajamas are displayed here. This is why clothing shouldn’t matter.”

Shelterhouse staff chose seven stories from a diverse collection, and then worked to recreate outfits that would capture the essence of each story. As the exhibit travels, attendees have the option to anonymously submit their own stories to the exhibit’s growing collection.

“We wanted to make sure there was a diverse representation of experiences. We have a sari, something you would wear to a basketball game and a lifeguard uniform, among others,” says Kelly Fitzpatrick, Lead Crisis Response Advocate at Shelterhouse. “There’s a misconception that this is an issue women face, but we wanted to show it can happen across all ages, to men and women and to people of all walks of life.”

Mitzi Brown, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator at Shelterhouse, cites the prevailing statistic that in their lifetime 1 in 3 women will experience sexual and/or physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Mitzi Brown, Shelterhouse Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator

“We want to encourage people to start by listening and being empathetic,” says Brown. “One woman came by earlier today and said: ‘they asked me this same question 40 years ago about what I was wearing.’ Having people feel comfortable coming forward in that way makes this so meaningful. To me, it’s already a success — we want to elevate the issue, and give it a bigger voice.”

The exhibit is part of a larger effort to bring light to the issue during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness month. Andrea Foster, a survivor, was one of the speakers that shared her story on opening night. This was one of the first times she had spoken publicly about her experience.

Andrea Foster talks about her experience as a survivor

“I have an amazing seven year old daughter now, and I hope she never has to deal with this. So, the first thing I’ll do is believe her,” started Foster. “We are quick to judge, but it is important to hone in the message that it’s not you, it’s not what you were wearing.”

The exhibit also coincides with a “Start by Believing” social media campaign that Shelterhouse is launching citywide.

“It speaks to how we want our community to be long term,” says Gajsiewicz. “We want to be the most supportive and educated community that we can be. This is a step toward breaking down the myths that prevent people from responding to disclosure of sexual assault appropriately.”

The global campaign, created by End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) seeks to “transform the way we respond to sexual assault.”

Descriptions of events came from all ages and walks of life.

“I don’t know how — in a society where 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted at some point in their life — we can turn our head any longer,” says Janine Ouderkirk, Executive Director of Shelterhouse. “If we don’t seize this moment to say, ‘not in Midland,’ we missed the boat. What has impressed me the most so far is the acceptance and collaboration from the community. Midland is a unique place where people come together and make things happen.”

At Shelterhouse, clients can enjoy free and confidential services ranging from safe shelter to counseling, advocacy, education and connection to resources. Resources that Shelterhouse offers include a 24-hour crisis line, counseling and advocacy, permanent housing help and court accompaniment. Individuals can also opt for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (SANE) program, which provides a client-centered and trauma-focused approach to examination.

“My coworker always says that advocacy is just a fancy word for connecting people with resources,” says Brown as she recounts the prevention, outreach and volunteer efforts that Shelterhouse coordinates. “Anyone who comes to the exhibit is an advocate, because now they know about us. And they can connect people to us.”

One of the exhibits at the What I Was Wearing event

The installation was also hosted at Delta Community College from April 2 through 6, as well as at the Ricker Center and Planetarium. Shelterhouse partnered with the Bay Area Women’s Shelter, the Underground Railroad and Sexual Assault Center of Saginaw on this exhibit.

“No matter who I talk to, there is often this lightbulb moment, where you’ve said something and they connect it to their own beliefs and misconceptions. You can see something within them changing,” says Gajsiewicz. “That’s what we want to do. We hope to start the conversation, so people can ask questions and learn another perspective. That’s how we make change — one person at a time.”

Shelterhouse Midland’s mission is to support victims of domestic and sexual violence by providing shelter, counseling and advocacy for people in Midland and Gladwin counties. Members of the community can seek out their emergency shelter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If you or someone you know may need help, please contact the 24-hour help line at 1.877.216.6383.
 
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