By Emilie Fleuette 

In a circle connected by a string of wooden hearts, students read others’ positive and negative thoughts during a workshop at Occupy McKeldin. The 12-hour event was organized by Preventing Sexual Assault (PSA) to stand up against sexual assault on this university’s campus and support sexual assault survivors.

Led by artist Lili Bernard, who has accused actor and comedian Bill Cosby of drugging and raping her in the early ‘90s, the group passed the wooden hearts around, first reading the negative side, then sharing the positive.

“My childhood friend was raped,” one student read.

“She will fall asleep at night,” read another.

Bernard explained she wanted the theme to be the yin and yang, the positive and negative, with a trope being the heart, the heart strings — the relationships. She said it was all about empathy.

“The reason that we rotated the hearts around and that we spoke other people’s words was to just imagine what it would be like to be that other person,” she said. “You’re holding their heart in your hand.”

This is the second year of Occupy McKeldin, which takes place on the McKeldin Mall. PSA founder McLaine Rich, who graduated from this university, created the organization and event after experiencing sexual assault herself.

“Lucky for me, I am equipped with the strongest support system I have ever seen,” she said. “Once I finally felt comfortable speaking about my experience publicly, I felt a sense of responsibility to help victims that aren’t as lucky as I am through sharing my story.”

“It’s hope inspiring,” Bernard said of the event and Rich’s resilience. “She’s taken her trauma and transformed it into triumph for everybody else. To be able to take that victimhood and turn it into victory is just amazing and it’s just so beautiful to see.”

After reading the hearts, the group sat and shared their own feelings and experiences. PSA president Alanna DeLeon, a senior behavioral and community health major, became emotional.

“It was really amazing to be able to connect and empathize with people who were pretty much strangers,” DeLeon said. “it showed just how different healing is for every survivor.”

She said being both the president and a survivor — and having to constantly talk about these issues — is difficult, but she has learned so much in the process and wouldn’t trade it for anything. As she gets ready to graduate, DeLeon said she has big hopes for the future of the event.

“I hope we continue to do Occupy every year,” DeLeon said. “It’s such an empowering event not only for survivors, but for other students on this campus who want to be allies. I hope the administration starts to want to get more involved in PSA’s work to eventually make positive changes to our campus’ sexual assault resource network. We really want to start PSA at universities across the country and eventually have all of us have a huge Occupy.”

Bernard left impressed with the day’s workshops and speakers and said University of Maryland students were examples of activism.

“I wish that other universities and students would model their activism through you guys … I’m just blown away. I love it, I’m so proud of you guys.”

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Featured Photo Credit: Students sit with Los Angeles artist Lili Bernard during the “heartstrings” workshop at Occupy McKeldin on Monday, April 3, 2017. (Emilie Fleuette/Bloc Photographer)

Emilie Fleuette is a senior broadcast journalism major and can be reached at ecfleuette@gmail.com.

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