Photos by Brian Addison. Full gallery below.
Folding tables with over a hundred pairs of donated stilettos, wedges and kitten heels lined Maxon Plaza outside Brotman Hall on the campus of Cal State Long Beach Wednesday as male students and faculty signed up for a chance to wear them while they walked a mile to raise awareness for sexual violence against women. Making its second annual stop at the Long Beach campus, "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" is a solidarity demonstration by male students hoping to educate the public on the sexual violence epidemic that has crept onto campuses, and to start a discussion of ways to bring it to an end.
The University’s Dean of Students Jeff Klaus spoke to a group of several hundred students in front of the school’s administration building about the importance of keeping the dialogue on sexual violence against women open. Standing behind a lectern and donning a pair of silver high heels, Klaus talked about the “red zone”—the first six weeks of the college semester, when the majority of fraternity and sorority parties are thrown, which coincides with the greatest number of reports of sexual violence—and how imperative it is for groups like PAUSE, Greek organizations and the university to all do their part to prevent it.
“Sexual assault on college campuses is getting a lot of attention, and that’s a good thing,” Klaus siad. “It is a great conversation for us to have because the safety of our community is paramount. We want to make sure that we’re constantly having this conversation, not just at this one event. This is a great part of an ongoing campaign.”
Students wore stickers on their shirts that read “Walking in Honor Of” where they wrote the names of women in their lives who have been affected by violence of some sort. At the turn-around point near the entrance of the library at the South edge of campus, there would be a large banner where they could leave the tags to create a collage.
Klaus reminded the participants that even though they were only walking a mile, his experience last year shed light on the fact that a lot of blisters can accumulate in those 5,280 feet. As the men strapped on their heels—or in some cases, used duct tape to provide more support—the women in attendance looked on with smiles, and even helped the men figure out the more complex strap configurations.
Katie Zawilski, a junior at the school and a member of PAUSE (Prevention Awareness Uniting Students with Empowerment), a group on campus aimed at preventing sexual assaults through education and outreach and one of the event’s sponsors, said the event could go a long way toward making people more comfortable discussing a topic that needs to be addressed more frequently.
“It’s an issue that really needs to be talked about and I think a lot of people are a little bit hesitant to talk about rape, sexual assault or gender violence and that’s why we want to put on an event to say ‘it’s okay to talk about it,’” Zawilski said. “If we can promote it in a positive way, hopefully we can help those people out, and let them know there’s a safe place for them to come.”
Some walked cautiously, some waddled around awkwardly and some men owned their heels, taking long confident strides through the crowded corridors of the campus. Onlookers took notice, with most recording it on their smartphones, smiling in confusion as the herd of heel-wearing men moved through the liberal arts buildings. Female students cheered them on as the struggled to make it up the stairs, some opting to take the easier route and ride the escalator to upper campus. The crowd erupted with approval as one student jogged through the crowd.
The fact that men are participating and walking the walk as well as talking the talk is important to the cause. Zawilski explained that seeing one man walk in heels and be open about the subject can be a powerful motivator to get other men who want to help out on board.
Getting men involved, whether it be actually walking in heels, volunteering time to coordinate the event or just educating their friends on the topic of violence toward women on campus are all goals of Men’s Success, one of the groups that helped put on the walk. Samuel Romero, a graduate assistant that works with the group said that the event has grown from about 100 or so participants in last year’s inaugural walk. Romero said that some of his students were shocked and even a bit hesitant once they learned that they’d be wearing heels during the event, but ultimately, the women in their lives urged them to follow through.
“A lot of our students are participating because maybe their loved ones have been victims of abuse or sexual violence, so they walk for those reasons,” Romero said. “They’re walking for sisters, mothers, significant others, friends while others just want to be involved in the movement to get the word out and spread awareness.”
Walk a Mile in Her Shoes was founded in 2001 by Frank Baird, who has since transformed the small movement into a 501(c)(3) corporation that has raised millions of dollars for local rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters and prevention and remediation programs. According to the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes website, one in six American women will be a victim of sexual assault in her life; every two minutes someone in the United States is raped.
The walk had a large contingent of Greek Organizations present as they, along with Men’s Success and PAUSE sponsored the event. As a former president of Delta Lambda Phi, the only national fraternity founded by gay men for all men, Juan Gonzalez knows the stigma that can be attached to members of fraternities when they make the decision to go Greek. Gonzalez walked in honor of one of his relatives who was a victim of domestic violence, but noted that all Greek members present were walking in an effort to both raise awareness and to dispel the notion that rape culture and violence toward women was an acceptable part of being part of a frat.
“It’s something that all of us as part of group are trying to fight against,” Gonzalez said.
At the very least, the spectacle of a few hundred male students walking from Brotman Hall to the campus Library will catch people’s attention and get them thinking. And to Gonzalez, that’s an important starting point. Getting people open and willing to discuss it and going further and helping to prevent it is the point why he and so many of his Greek brothers and sisters strapped up their heels and made the uphill trek.
“Essentially everyone that’s participating is playing that leadership role by embarrassing themselves walking around the campus, probably falling a little bit,” Gonzalez said. “But at least people will be noticing that people are taking a stand against something that’s serious and should be talked about more often than it is.”