Jan. 3 2019 11:00 AM

Tana Fedewa, Advocate for survivors

Tana Fedewa, 37, is the director of Michigan State University’s Sexual Assault Program. She’s a licensed social worker, specializing in trauma-informed services, response and intervention at MSU and neighboring communities. She worked at MSU while disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sex crimes.

Fedewa hopes to expand the holistic services offered through MSU’s program to include opportunities to heal through movement, art, music, animals and mindfulness. Eighteen employees and one service dog compose her staff, with a total reach to more than 700 survivors (and counting) this year alone.

— KYLE KAMINSKI

Tell me about the impact your office makes on campus.

We’re trying to make it a place, a community, a place where survivors feel like they matter and they belong.

When I started, our program was in the basement. It felt like we were just shoving the trauma in the basement. Out of sight, out of mind. There’s been a big cultural change at MSU, in terms of recognizing the impact of sexual assault. We’re not in the basement, but I still don’t think we recognize the depth and the breadth of it yet.

We’re trying to figure out how to reach people for what they really need. We’re trying to bring them some humanity, comfort and community. During finals, we had coffee bars and activities to take a break. We realize not everyone heals in a linear, traditional way. Therapy is not always everyone’s first step. It can be intimidating.

Our canine advocate, Justice, has been an amazing transition for people. We’re also getting people involved with acupuncture, yoga and movement. Sometimes that’s where they want to focus on — that mindbody stuff.

For many, it’s like the trauma doesn’t allow for them to be engaged socially or go to work or classes. They may have to withdraw from the university. I don’t think people understand the financial side. Last year, we started a small survivor emergency fund in our program to help survivors. That has been really helpful.

There are so many things that need to be done during the process, so we’re trying to just help people understand and make informed choices. A lot of times, that ends up leading into therapy if we’re connecting with people.

How did the Larry Nassar investigation impact things at your office?

So many people were experiencing a level of institutional betrayal. What do we need to implement? How do we make changes that outlast the current administration? How do we use this momentum to figure out changes?

People just needed to be heard. I think we met with almost 40 different groups of people in a few months to just sit with them, hear them, absorb it and figure out. We brainstormed with them: What would that look like if it were to be different? It’s a change in the making. I think that helps me to stay focused on why I do this work.

I think this a momentous time in terms of really moving the needle on awareness and actual action. We can be a service model. Right now, we are not. But we’re actually looking at what would it take to do this the right way.

What’s the biggest challenge? It’s the ethical conflict. Social workers believe in fighting for social justice, but some of it is outside of my control. The new Title IX recommendations coming down from Betsy DeVos’ office are going to make it very difficult. The challenge is being part of a process that you know isn’t fair to survivors.

It’s not trauma-informed and it could cause more harm, but it’s our office’s responsibility to support them.

Inside, I’m crawling out of my skin because I know that none of this is right. It’s all wrong.

We know so much about sexual assault on college campuses, yet there’s this idea that a lot of people are being sexually assaulted, but very few people are sexually assaulting people. If we’re reducing that accountability, then we are allowing more people to be sexually assaulted. It just feels like we’re going backwards sometimes.

What’s next? My hope for 2019 is that we shift into a place where we have some sort of guiding principle and make good choices because they’re the right things to do. Survivors deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. If we have those values and we make decisions based on that, things are going to get better.

We need to believe people, validate them, and lift them up for their courage and their resiliency.

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