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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

MiddSafe: Creating a safe space over the phone

MiddSafe: creating a safe space over the phone
MiddSafe: creating a safe space over the phone

“Hello, you’ve reached the MiddSafe hotline. How can I help you today?”

Power-based personal violence is not just individual occurrences, but structural, community-level problems that require collective actions to remedy. Violence continues to occur at Middlebury College and has pervasive impacts on many students’ daily lives. In a 2023 survey by the American College Health Association, 7.5% of college students reported being sexually touched without their consent within the last 12 months, 2% reported being sexually penetrated without their consent and 5% have been victims of stalking. In Zeitgeist 5.0, 18% of student respondents reported being survivors of sexual assault, and 40% had had sexual experiences at Middlebury College that made them uncomfortable. Violence is especially prevalent in situations involving power imbalances, such as class year, gender, race, economic status and sexuality. Students of marginalized identities are disproportionately affected by these issues. 

MiddSafe advocates hold firm that experiences of violence are never the survivors’ fault. Everyone deserves a safe space to heal and grow from harm. Society has taught many of us to label our experiences as too trivial or ambiguous to get attention; that is not true. The way your body feels matters, and your emotions — whether pain, anger or confusion — deserve to be listened to. MiddSafe advocates can accompany you, listen to you and support you in figuring out a next step that you feel comfortable with. 

MiddSafe is a peer-run hotline for Middlebury students in need of support around sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking. MiddSafe operates 24/7 while classes are in session, and you can reach the hotline by calling the phone number 802-377-0239. MiddSafe student advocates are certified Vermont crisis workers; advocates participate in two weeks of training before the start of each fall and receive supervision from the Health and Wellness Education Office throughout the year. As a confidential resource, MiddSafe will not disclose any information you share, unless there is a clear and substantial risk of danger to self or others. 

While professional counseling can be an important part of survivors’ healing journeys, I believe that students play a powerful role in informing peers on healthy relationships and advocating alongside survivors on a day-to-day basis. As a part of the student community, MiddSafe advocates have knowledge into students’ daily lives and understand the barriers survivors often face when seeking care on campus. 

It is very common to feel alone and vulnerable in the face of violence, and that loneliness can be compounded in small, secluded communities like Middlebury. Away from family and childhood friends, under stress from academic work and jobs, many of us may feel a pressure to conform to a busy daily routine, even when they desperately need space to express, talk through and reflect on our feelings. Experiences of violence can bring a range of difficult emotions and questions, such as: What has just happened? How should I understand our relationship now? Where can I get STI testing? How can I report this incident? How do I get around campus every day?

I believe survivors have the best understanding of their experiences and needs, and the role of advocates is to support them in making the right decision for themselves. MiddSafe recognizes that healing means different things to different people — such as connecting to loved ones and making plans for future safety, taking time off work to care for one’s physical and emotional well-being or seeking justice through Title IX on campus or the state legal system. MiddSafe advocates can meet you wherever you are emotionally and physically, whether you are feeling unsafe in a relationship and unsure about what to do next, processing emotions from past experiences of violence, or looking for information on a specific resource.

While Vermont state legislation and the Middlebury Handbook have specific definitions for sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking, these experiences are often complex and highly specific to every individual. Some of us may describe our experiences in legal terms, while others navigate feelings of discomfort, anger and self-doubt from interactions that seem confusing and are not easily definable. 

In advocacy, I think it is important to center survivors’ own narratives of their experiences, and hold spaces for complex physical and emotional responses. MiddSafe advocates will not judge or define what has happened; instead, MiddSafe aims to accompany you in understanding your experiences and figuring out a next step that feels supportive to you.

What can MiddSafe do?

Every call is different, depending on your feelings and needs at the moment. The on-call advocate will give you the opportunity to share your hopes for the call so that we can use our time together in the most supportive way. It is completely okay if you don’t have a specific goal in mind and just want to be heard. You can share as much or as little personal information as you would like. If you prefer not to share the specifics of your experiences, the conversation can center around your emotions at the moment or available resources.

MiddSafe advocates can support you in listening to you in a safe, non-judgmental space and discussing plans for long-term care. Advocates can help you create and take safety measures that you find helpful, seek medical care (such as meeting with a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, getting STI testing or contraception), or explore reporting options through Title IX or the Middlebury Police Department. Resources advocates can guide you through include Health Services, Porter Hospital, counseling, college chaplains, TimelyCare, Atria Collective (formerly WomenSafe) survivor support groups and the Title IX office. If you are calling because someone you know has experienced harm, you and the advocate can discuss ways to both support the survivor and care for yourself.

Many survivors have complex needs that require support from multiple sources. Navigating the many on-campus offices can feel stressful and overwhelming, especially for students new to Middlebury and those who are unfamiliar with the American healthcare system. MiddSafe advocates can help by breaking down the process of seeking care into a few manageable steps, such as texting a trusted friend tonight or calling Health Services the next day. 

I believe the work of violence prevention and response is critical to creating a safe, nurturing campus community. I hope that more students can join MiddSafe in this effort, and that we can all learn skills to care for people around us — practicing respect and consent in everyday interactions, recognizing that interpersonal violence is embedded in power and control within broader systems of oppression, and holding spaces for difficult experiences and emotions. Every one of us — especially those with the most power and influence on this campus — has a role to play in contributing to a community where each person feels safe and respected.

If you are interested in becoming a MiddSafe advocate, we recruit new advocates every spring, and we are excited to hear from students passionate about advocacy work.

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