Walk a Mile UNC style: A Response to Criticism

Later today, my fraternity, Sigma Phi, is sponsoring an event called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes: Chapel Hill. The walk is a fundraiser for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center and is part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month here at Carolina. Yesterday, Siren published an editorial about our event that offered some helpful criticism. I want to address a few of the opinions set forth in the article.

Before I do, I would like to briefly address my personal involvement in Walk a Mile. Our event is sponsored by multiple student organizations, including Students Working for the Adequation of Genders (SWAG), the Campus Y, One Act and the sisters of Alpha Chi Omega. I do not presume to speak for any of them, or for my fellow brothers in Sigma Phi.

This winter break, my twin sister, a student at Davidson College, mentioned to me that a fraternity at Davidson had held an event called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, which was dedicated to making men better allies in the fight against rape, sexual assault, and abuse. This intrigued me. It is my personal belief that some elements of the Greek system perpetuate rape culture. I hoped that my fraternity was well-positioned to reach out to Greeks and non-Greeks alike in order to start tackling issues related to safety and inclusion on campus, so in January, I started to plan a Walk a Mile event in Chapel Hill.

It quickly became apparent that recreating a traditional Walk a Mile event would not do. By soliciting feedback from various sectors of campus, we learned that generally, only men walk in these events, that they are required to wear heels, and that the atmosphere is inappropriately festive for an event that addresses violent crime. Furthermore, as many individuals and organizations on campus have pointed out, people of all gender identities, not just women, are survivors of these crimes. What’s more, not all women wear heels, and some men do! Had we simply replicated Walk a Mile as it is done normally, our event would have had serious flaws.

With this in mind, we set out to improve our event. Our first step was to ensure that all participants could march. Why on earth would we stop someone who wanted to buy a ticket to support the OCRCC from participating?

Next, we took steps to set a proper tone for the event. At their worst, these types of events are self-congratulatory rituals. We understood from the get-go that participants in our events were not heroes for thinking that everyone deserved to be safe. We plan to use our opening remarks tomorrow to reiterate that message: this is a very small action. Furthermore, we hope to convey that the event can be a celebration of the courage of survivors and of the importance of safety and inclusion without descending into anything light-hearted or frivolous. To this end, we plan on giving a survivor testimonial to any marcher who wants one. These testimonies–which will reflect the diversity of survivors across the country–should dissuade any participant from thinking that this event is a joke. Our hope is that through our introductory remarks, the walk itself, and our post-march discussions, we can convey how serious this topic is.

This still left us dealing with the issue of “women’s” footwear. Beyond the prosaic reality that it is easier to get people to buy a ticket to an event with a “twist,” we see a fundamental value in requesting that male-identified students wear a pair of women’s shoes. No one denies that the vast majority of perpetrators are men, nor do many question that some popular norms of “traditional” masculinity drive rape culture. I hoped that by transgressing one gender norm, we could get male-identified students in the habit of questioning more insidious norms about what makes a man “a man.” I am well aware that not everyone is comfortable with this aspect, which is why we will explain the point of the heels in our opening remarks and why wearing the shoes is strictly voluntary. Again, donning these heels are a small step. It will not change our culture and may not fundamentally alter the male-identified individuals marching in these heels, but it is still a step in the right direction.

With these changes in place, I began to feel increasingly comfortable with the event. I think we have set a solid foundation for an event that will raise hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for the OCRCC. Furthermore, I view tomorrow as an opportunity for discussion. Every conversation I have had about Walk a Mile, especially with its critics, has been illuminating.  (Keep sharing your objections!) My hope is that any individuals who may have problems with our event will attend it and speak their minds. How can we learn if we do not talk to each other? If you see someone acting inappropriately at Walk a Mile tomorrow, let them know! Anyone who would intentionally or unintentionally belittle survivors, women, or members of the LGBTQ community at Walk a Mile would do the same exact thing if they were not at the event. The crucial difference is, that at Walk a Mile, they can be confronted with a new perspective.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Siren for the article they ran. A few weeks ago, I spoke with one of their journalists and encouraged her to attend the event and to write what she felt–whether it was critical or positive, or more likely, a mix of both. I only regret that Siren’s recent editorial made the understandable mistake of conflating our event with comparable events around the country.

Let’s keep this dialogue going and growing long after this particular event ends. I hope to see you at the Old Well tomorrow at 5:00 p.m.

Peter Vogel

Class of 2015


Please visit the Facebook event page for more information on the event and ways to get involved. https://www.facebook.com/events/380928782047577/

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