When Katie Akin talks, Vice President Joe Biden listens. That’s because Akin – a graduate student member of the UNC Title IX Task Force – was invited to sit at the table next to the vice president on Tuesday (Feb. 18) at the first “listening session” of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, formed by President Obama in January.
And she gave him an earful. “I told him that the listening sessions were a welcome approach, but that law makers needed to institute ongoing feedback from survivors, their allies, and people working directly with Title IX if they really want to make any difference,” she said. “I also said that the federal government should demonstrate that they are serious about this work by funding programs that support Title IX and empower survivors.”
Akin’s five recommendations urged government transparency, sensitivity and humility in Title IX-related issues:
1. Support public discussions of the institutionalization of sexual and gender-based forms of harassment, discrimination and violence, no matter how difficult.
2. Guide colleges on how to interpret and implement federal Title IX policies.
3. Increase funding for educational programs and trainings to prevent sexual and gender-based harassment, discrimination and violence on campuses
4. Revise the language used in Title IX policies to reflect equal respect for all people who may be involved
5. Realize that no one can assume that they know how to ensure ‘justice’ for reporting parties under Title IX.
Then, just to be sure she had gotten all her points across, Akin handed Biden a print version of her six-page response, 2014-2-14 Title IX concerns for federal task force. “I knew this was a unique opportunity in my life,” she said.
Akin was selected by Christi Hurt, task force chair, when Monika Johnson-Hostler — executive director of the NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault and president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence — asked Hurt for a student representative.
“I asked Katie to go because she has been an outstanding member of the Task Force who is deeply dedicated to bringing students voices forward into our process,” Hurt said. “She is ever-mindful of the constellation of dynamics that surround sexual assault victimization. She is keenly aware of how many challenges we all face in creating a community dedicated to sexual violence prevention and in building systems and services that serve all survivors.”
Akin and Tenika Neely of North Carolina Central University, who flew to Washington together for the event, were two of the 13 students from schools in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, California, Boston and Washington, D.C., invited to speak.
Because she was seated on Biden’s left, Akin spoke first, after a little basketball chatter with the veep. “I think he was trying to be conversational to start off,” she said. “He said he liked UNC as long as they don’t beat Syracuse.” Each student or activist at the table got a turn to share his or her thoughts, and what was supposed to be an hour-long meeting stretched to two hours. Biden had to leave after the first 60 minutes to stay on schedule, but other White House staff members remained.
“It’s good that Vice President Biden cares about these issues,” Akin said, “but there’s a very large generational gap between him and students or even the people who are on our Title IX Task Force.” She said Biden was “friendly, but also paternalistic.” It was strange, she observed, to talk about how we might change “normalized histories and cultures gender-based and sexual violence” while sitting next to “the embodiment of patriarchy” around a massive wooden table in the “grandiose Colonial style” of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Ashley Ward, the professor that Akin works for as a teaching assistant, and Banu Gokariksel and Elizabeth Olson, her academic advisers in the geography department, have been supportive of the work she has put into helping to craft a new sexual misconduct policy for students. The attention the White House is paying to the issue is also “an affirmation of the ongoing work,” Akin said.