“For Her We Speak” Comes to Campus

By: Prof. Sarah Sinclair (Communications and Literary Studies)

On October 13th, in collaboration with Halton Women’s Place and FHASS, literature professor and Ph.D researcher Nicolette Little hosted For Her We Speak at the Trafalgar campus: an evening event focused on giving voice to issues of bullying and violence against women and girls.

The keynote speaker of the evening was Leah Parsons, who began a career in advocacy work after the tragic suicide of her eldest daughter, Rehtaeh.

Rehtaeh was the victim of intense bullying and victim-blaming after photos from an alleged sexual assault were circulated amongst her peers in her Nova Scotia community. She died by suicide in 2013, 17 months after the alleged assault, at the age of 17.

Throughout the evening, Leah Parsons’ words gave life to her daughter’s story, restoring Rehtaeh’s voice through personal anecdotes and photos about a life that ended to soon. As the sold-out crowd listened, Parsons described how the bullying Rehtaeh encountered permeated all aspects of their lives and community.

Yet Parsons’ message was ultimately one of hope: a hope that her tragedy could be transformed into a message for change.

In an interview with the Halton Beaver before the event, Parsons explained the importance of speaking out for her daughter: “I believe we can effect change. When we change our dialogue, we can affect our behaviour. The more we talk about it, the more social change we’re going to see” (qtd. in Howes, 2016).

It was this ability to find hope in the darkest of places that first prompted Nicolette Little to contact Leah Parsons after completing a research paper about Parsons’ advocacy work. “Connecting with Leah was a very emotional experience. Here was this woman who had been through so much, but was taking her hardship to make life safer and better for others,” Little states. “This is a value and ethos (trying to leave the world a better place through our efforts and work) that I identify with and really appreciate.”

When Little first raised the idea of inviting Leah Parsons to speak at Sheridan, she never expected the event to expand to include such a turnout. Through the support of Stephanie Samboo, Associate Dean of the School of Communications and Literary Studies, For Her We Speak engaged with other Sheridan groups and became the final part of a week-long series of campus events highlighting the need for awareness of sexual assault against women on campus. Little and Samboo also reached out to partner with Carm Bozzo of Halton Women’s Place to establish connections with the broader Halton Community as well as municipal politicians.

The evening ended with a lively panel discussion that touched on the key issues of the evening, featuring:

  • Maria Lucido-Bezely, Sheridan Dean of Students, and Cindy Noble, Sheridan nursing professor and sexual assault and violence nurse, spoke about Sheridan’s “Dare to Care” campaign and the vast network of support available to victims both within and outside of the college.
  • MP Pam Damoff, vice-chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for the Status of Women, spoke to the efforts underway by the federal government to address violence against women specifically, and cyber-bullying more broadly.
  • Brent Duguid, Halton Women’s Place public educator, emphasized the need to involve our men and boys in the conversation on bullying and sexual assault and highlighted initiatives within the Halton Regional school boards to do just that.
  • Dr. Sara Cumming, Sheridan sociology professor and gender studies expert, discussed the need to look at bullying as an issue for all genders, pointing out that perceived differences in bullying are not always supported by research: “It has been reported that bullying tends to be more common among boys than girls; however, research shows us that it just might be harder to spot among girls. Boys tend to bully in more overt and physical ways while female bullying tends to happen in more subtle and behind the scene ways,” Cumming states. Both Dr. Cumming and Mr. Duguid emphasized the need to engage youth of all genders in discussion in order to bring about meaningful change.

The most memorable moment of the evening, however, did not occur behind a podium or upon a stage. As one audience member pointed out, what made the evening memorable were the teenagers in the crowd who had come out to listen and participate in the evening, serving as symbols of the potential for change for which the evening’s hosts had been advocating.

As former Sheridan President Jeff Zabudsky pointed out, “By attending tonight’s event, you’re taking an opportunity to step up to say, ‘Enough already’ and to take action against sexual- and gender-based violence” (qtd. in Howes, 2016)

Oakville city councilors designated October 13th in honor of “For Her We Speak.”

Read more about the event:

Howes, N. (2016, October 14). “Education key to ending violence: Leah Parsons tells sold-out crowd in Oakville.” InsideHalton.com. Retrieved from http://www.insidehalton.com/news-story/6912020-education-key-to-ending-violence-leah-parsons-tells-sold-out-crowd-in-oakville/

Braitt, E. (2016, October 14). “‘I was told I was a horrible mother’: Leah Parsons on being bullied after daughter Rehtaeh’s death.” The Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/10/14/i-was-told-i-was-a-horrible-mother-leah-parsons-on-being-bullied-after-daughter-rehtaehs-death.html

Sheridan Insider (2016, October 17). “Leah Parsons shares Rehtaeh’s story at ‘For Her We Speak’ Event” Retrieved from http://sheridan315.rssing.com/browser.php?indx=18850323&item=2305

Piper, C. (2016, October 19). “Emotional night at Marquee to battle bullying.” Sheridan Sun. Retrieved from http://sheridansun.sheridanc.on.ca/2016/10/19/for-her-we-speak