April 14, 2021

Seekonk Resident Helps Lead Victory for College Campus Assault Survivors

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In January, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill that addresses sexual violence at colleges and universities by strengthening support services for survivors. It also creates a task force to develop a student survey on campus sexual assault, to be taken biennially at schools statewide.

For Liana Ascolese, of Seekonk, the law’s passage was the culmination of years of hard work by her and a dedicated group of fellow advocates — work that she began while a graduate student at the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy. Today, Ascolese —who studied political science as a UMass undergraduate before receiving her master’s from SPP in 2017 — is the national legislative director of the Every Voice Coalition, which works on legislation to address the pervasive problem of sexual assaults of college students. She balances her Every Voice role with a full-time position at SBDigital, a Washington, DC-based communications firm that works with progressive organizations and candidates.

Citing data from the US Bureau of Justice, Every Voice notes that 23% of female undergraduates and 5% of male undergraduates experience sexual assault on campus. While the issue has received increased attention in recent years, university policies for assisting survivors, preventing assaults, and collecting and reporting data are often outdated and ineffective, according to Every Voice.

Every Voice was born in Massachusetts, as an informal coalition of students across the state. Ascolese’s involvement traces back to her time as chair of the Massachusetts College Democrats’ Women’s Caucus, when she was a student at SPP. Reeling from the results of the 2016 presidential election, the group decided to turn its energies toward legislation, organizing in support of a bill at the Massachusetts State House that would have created a campus climate survey on sexual assault.

The student group joined an eleventh-hour push to get the bill passed before the close of the 2015-16 legislative session. Despite some promising signs of support — including a petition at change.org that quickly gathered several thousand signatures — the bill did not make it to a vote. But the effort did bring together a coalition of student activists from across the state, including Ascolese’s Every Voice cofounders, John Gabrieli, Ivy Lee, and Genny Rogers, who joined forces when the bill was refiled in the next legislative session.

Now called the Campus Safety Bill, it was amended to include support services for survivors in addition to the campus survey requirement. “We spent that session making a lot of calls, sending a lot of emails, trying to get meetings with a lot of [legislators],” Ascolese said. This time, the House and Senate each passed a version of the proposed law, but a final compromise bill never made it to a full vote before the session’s end. “It was like this game of ping pong,” she recalled. “We were running around the State House at 10 o’clock at night, trying to convince people to pass it. It was a pretty bitter defeat.

“We still weren’t very organized,” Ascolese continued. While Every Voice had built an impressive group of dedicated volunteers, it lacked structure, she said. “It was great, but it was truly the definition of flying blind.”

As the 2019-20 legislative session got underway, Every Voice formalized its operations, including assigning roles to its all-volunteer members. Ascolese became director of legislative advocacy, a role that drew on her background in public policy and political science and her experience as a legislative aide and a political campaign manager. In addition, Ascolese and classmate Zulekha Abu had researched campus sexual assault for their capstone project at SPP. Their report, "If You Want Something Done, Ask a Woman: How Women College Administrators Implement Effective Title IX Policies to Prevent Sexual Assault," received the 2017 Best Capstone Award from the Massachusetts chapter of the American Society for Public Administration.

“The capstone was so valuable,” Ascolese said. “Having done my own original research was super helpful and gave me a lot of credibility in the advocacy process.”

In her new role as Every Voice’s legislative director, Ascolese put together a lobbying team of students and young professionals and wrote talking points to ensure consistency in their messaging. The group also used what it had learned about the power structure in the State House to focus its efforts.

“It was very professionalized, very coordinated,” Ascolese said. “We approached people in a really targeted way.” Every Voice secured meetings with about half of the 200 members of the Massachusetts legislature; ultimately, 160 signed on as cosponsors of the bill. The group also organized dozens of students to come to the State House to offer testimony at a hearing on the bill. “That was a very powerful day,” Ascolese said. “We had students from all over the state. Our community partners gave very powerful testimony as well to support the survivors’ stories.”

The bill passed in early January, in the waning days of the legislative session, then was signed into law by Baker. This was actually Every Voice’s second legislative victory; a New Hampshire bill, although filed after the Massachusetts one, became law earlier, in the summer in 2020. Every Voice will continue to be involved in the implementation of those new laws, Ascolese said, and is working on similar bills in seven other legislatures, with plans to expand its efforts into other states. Every Voice is also working with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on the federal Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The organization also recently added its first full-time, paid staff member — National Director Nora Gallo, a 2020 UMass Amherst grad — and has begun fundraising to support its work.

As Every Voice’s legislative director, Ascolese works to bring the Massachusetts bill model to other states and to mentor students to become leaders in the effort. “The political process and the legislative advocacy process can be really inaccessible,” she said. Every Voice’s goal is to teach students how to do advocacy work and then to share that knowledge with others. “Sometimes giving someone else the opportunity and mentoring them and literally bringing them to the meeting table is all it takes for them to really stand out and be heard.”

The Every Voice model also includes a strong focus on self-care. “Certain things about the legislative advocacy process, although empowering, can also be retraumatizing for a lot of our members,” Ascolese said, so advocates are encouraged to step back from the work and prioritize their well-being when needed.

Ascolese was drawn to the issue of campus assaults in part because of her own history as a survivor of domestic violence. “Growing up in that environment, I’ve always been really cognizant of the ways that people in leadership don’t always look like me or share my experiences, and that definitely had an effect on my life,” she said. “In college I focused my studies on women in politics and their barriers to participation, and certainly the experience of sexual violence is a barrier, at least in the immediate aftermath.

“It’s always been my goal not only to elect and appoint more leaders who are more diverse and really share the life experiences of their constituents, but also people who have empathy for these situations and will use the political process to break cycles of violence,” she said.

“Our students and survivors are such amazing and powerful people and they’ve inspired me so much,” Ascolese said. “I’m glad that people across the state, maybe even survivors who were not directly involved with our movement, will see that we’re sending a different signal now from the state level, and that people recognize and believe them and care about them.”

Learn more about the Every Voice Coalition.

Support the cause here:
https://www.flipcause.com/secure/fundraiser/MTA3ODk0/54524

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