Wagatwe Wanjuki. All photos by Phoenix Tso
On August 8, 2016, Wagatwe Wanjuki burned her Tufts University sweatshirt and broadcast it on Facebook Live.Right before burning it, she held up the gray sweatshirt—her alma mater's name emblazoned across it in white block letters—for viewers to see. She'd worn the sweatshirt since her senior year of high school, when she first got her Tufts acceptance letter."I was very proud to claim Tufts as my school and my alma mater," Wanjuki said.
Had everything gone according to plan, Wanjuki would have graduated with the class of 2008. Instead, she says that while at the university, another student raped her multiple times. Wanjuki reported him during the spring 2008 semester, but both Tufts administrators and police declined to investigate her rape, citing a one-year statute of limitations that existed at the time. Wanjuki was expelled in the summer of 2009 for poor academic performance, even after she explained that she was struggling from the trauma of being raped. She was one semester away from graduating.Since then, Wanjuki has devoted herself to bringing sexual assault reform to various American college campuses. She founded Know Your IX in 2013, a resource for students to demand that their universities' sexual misconduct policies (and the enforcement of said policies) comply with Title IX, a federal statute prohibiting gender discrimination in universities that receive federal funding. This includes Tufts, which the Department of Education found in violation of Title IX in 2014 for failing to address student complaints of sexual assault in a "prompt and equitable" manner. The university officially unveiled a new sexual misconduct policy that same year.Wanjuki was instrumental in inspiring that reform. She burned her Tufts sweatshirt on Facebook Live, because now she wants an apology.
Since the sweatshirt, Wanjuki has burned two other Tufts items on Facebook Live, as part of a new campaign she started with another activist, Kamilah Willingham, who reported that she was raped while studying at Harvard Law School. The goal of the campaign—called Just Say Sorry—is to get Tufts, Harvard, and other universities to formally apologize for mishandling the sexual assault cases on their campuses.
"They only really want to acknowledge their successes and not their failures," Wanjuki said, "so we want to give schools an opportunity to offer a form of justice that any survivor can access."Related: How Campus Rape Victims Get Hurt by the Laws That Are Supposed to Protect ThemThis is important because sexual assault survivors often cannot access justice through formal means, like the court system or their schools' policies. (Like Wanjuki, Willingham reported her rape to both Harvard and Cambridge police. Willingham's assailant was ultimately charged with assault and battery, but not any sex crimes.) According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics' Campus Climate Survey Validation Study, only 7 percent of campus rapes are reported to school officials, while 4 percent are reported to law enforcement. Two oft-cited reasons were that "the student was concerned that the group would treat him/her poorly, not respond effectively, or not take any action," and that "the student was concerned that the [adjudicating] group would not keep his/her situation confidential."This is why actions like Wanjuki's public burnings make such a statement: It's justice-seeking on the survivor's terms. The most famous example is Emma Sulkowicz's performance art piece, "Carry That Weight," in which Sulkowicz carried a mattress around campus to represent the one she says she was raped on as a sophomore at Columbia University. Sulkowicz said she would stop when either the university expelled her rapist, or after she graduated. (It turned out to be the latter.) The project had a very powerful effect, with other students helping her lug the mattress around.
Wanjuki told me burning items from Tufts allows her to express the anger that she's held back while working as an activist. "So it's sort of like a talk back to respectability politics that a lot of survivors have to conform to, or they feel like they have to conform to be believed or listened to," she said.
After broadcasting their first few #JustSaySorry burnings on Facebook—including one in which Willingham set fire to the Harvard Law School acceptance letter that she had thought she would want to hold onto forever—Wanjuki and Willingham won a grant from the Awesome Foundation, an organization that gives out micro-grants, to produce a professional video for the project. They invited several Los Angeles–area survivors to share their stories and speak about why they think colleges should "just say sorry."One of the survivors, Elisabeth Aultman, who directed the filming, drew on her experience as a producer of "F*CK YES," a consent education web series. The video involves each survivor writing down a phrase associated with rape culture—things like "How much did you drink?" and "Why did it take so long to say anything?"—and then burning it.
The collective catharsis is part of Wanjuki and Willingham's plan to extend the project beyond them, to other survivors, and to future college students."We also believe [an apology] makes campuses safer," Wanjuki told me. "We noticed that when schools are basically victim blaming, other survivors and other students on campus hear that, right? And so if they're assaulted later, then they don't feel comfortable coming forward."
Representatives from both Harvard and Tufts declined to comment on the specific cases, but noted that they were committed to improving sexual assault policies on their respective campuses."Tufts has made significant changes to improve how we prevent and respond to complaints of sexual misconduct, investigate them, and impose appropriate sanctions while respecting the rights of all parties," Patrick Collins, Tuft's executive director of public relations, told me. "It is clear that our past policies had room for improvement, and we regret if we have not always met the needs of our community. We are grateful to those who raised their voices and offered their active involvement on this important issue over the last decade."In the video, one by one, the survivors' written messages and chosen items go up in flames. For many of them, it's the first time they feel like they have some power over what happened to them, after traditional avenues of justice failed them.As for the remote possibility that Tufts formally apologizes to her, Wanjuki says she'd be "grateful for Tufts to finally do something right.""I've only really heard of so many failures and being in denial about what they've done," she told me. "So it would give me some hope for steps forward. It wouldn't feel like everything I've been through was for nothing."Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Willingham's assailant was not criminally punished for her rape. He was charged with simple assault and was sentenced to nine months probation, but was not convicted of sexual assault.Follow Phoenix Tso on Twitter.