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The ‘alternative truth’

After weeks of nonstop meetings, news articles, negotiations and hard work, the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program’s (SHARPP) street harassment wall has been re-installed on the third floor of the Memorial Union Building (MUB). The incredible support from various departments, administrators, and fellow students on campus has been overwhelming, and I have no doubt that it is this support which helped us advance the display’s re-installment in some form. The way our campus came together around an issue that affects so many of us drew more attention to it than originally intended, and this only shows how strong we are when we come together as a community.

The display that is now presented, however, is a heavily edited version of the original. Panels that featured the statistics, definitions and resources had to be blown up as though to “even out” the effect of the many quotes and stories students were so brave to share with us. New banners reading “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month” and “This is Not a Compliment” were printed and woven into the new display. National statistics about street harassment were also added alongside the UNH survey data that we had provided (our survey data proved similar to those national statistics). These new changes were added to satisfy the administration’s worry that children and families touring the university would see the exhibit.

Although these alterations may seem subtle and harmless, they have changed the original intention of the project, and therefore I cannot call the MUB wall display mine anymore.

The original hope was to prioritize the 35 street harassment quotes and allow them to be the eye-catcher, as they were taking up the most space on the wall. Observers would first read the hurtful comments in the quote bubbles only to find out that those exact things may have been said to their friends and neighbors on this campus.

The quotes surrounded the panels that contained our definitions, resources and UNH statistics drawn from the survey we conducted of 190 UNH students. We wanted to draw attention to an issue that, although is a problem nationally, is also a problem in our local community and doesn’t get enough attention. I figured survey data from UNH students would exemplify that, and make the exhibit more relatable for the many students and other community members who may pass by it every day.

Instead, the quote bubbles and information have been given equal space and placed side by side. Twenty two quotes, which the dean deemed “appropriate” enough to remain on the wall replace the original 35. Additional banners that take away from the original value of the display have been added.

What is now presented to students through the display is an “alternative truth.” By choosing which stories are “appropriate” enough to be shared and censoring others that are just as real, the administration has chosen to present an idealized version of sexual harassment to the public. It hides realities that, yes, are hurtful, but the censoring of those realities is more harmful than the publicizing of them. Obviously, this is heavily reflective of our current political climate and I wonder whether something like this may have happened even a couple years ago.

The small number of young children who may pass by the wall on a campus tour should not be prioritized over the safety of the thousands of students who live here; this is weak reasoning for heavy editing of the truth of an issue that, as displayed by our local data, affects a significant number of students.

Some have suggested refusing the MUB venue if the display could not be installed in its original form. However, my colleagues and I at SHARPP believe that it is important to have some exhibit rather than none. Although the current display is a distorted portrayal of street harassment, it will still do its job of drawing attention to and raising awareness around the issue.

It is also important to make information and resources available to students who experience street harassment.

We at SHARPP will not allow survivors’ stories to be silenced. We plan on working closely with those who have reached out to us on campus to create an exhibit at a venue where the removed quotes can be viewed. Until then, please continue the conversation around street harassment, and don’t forget to join us for the Anti-Violence Rally and Walk on April 13.

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