Activist and Survivor Brenda Tracy Addresses Colgate on Sexual Assault

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Brenda Tracy spoke to Colgate students about her experience as a survivor of sexual violence. Tracy shared her story with the audience, and then spoke about the prevention of sexual assault, focusing on the importance of holding others accountable. 

Maddie Veronis, Maroon-News Staff

On February 7 and 8, activist, advocate and survivor  Brenda Tracy visited Colgate and held three presentations on sexual violence education: one for female-identified students, one for male-identified students, and one for a gender inclusive audience. Female-identified students gathered in the Colgate Memorial Chapel to listen to Tracy’s talk at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday night. This article covers the discussion that took place at this singular event.

Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Colgate and Haven staff member Dawn LaFrance introduced Tracy. 

“Brenda describes herself as an activist, a nurse, a mother, advocate, a student and lobbyist. I describe her as incredible – a woman with a courageous story.” LaFrance said.

Tracy’s visit was made possible by the work of the Student Government Association (SGA), the Greek Presidents Council, Center for Leadership and Student Involvement and Haven. 

SGA felt so strongly about student attendance to Tracy’s lectures that it unanimously passed a resolution to suspend social hosting during her visit. 

“The Senate believes that a temporary suspension of all social hosting events during the time of Brenda’s visit to Colgate would both promote attendance, and simultaneously emphasize the importance of Brenda Tracy’s talk,” the resolution stated.

SGA Speaker of the Senate sophomoreEli Cousin further explained the decision. 

“At the end of last semester, the Senate of the Student Government Association voted to help fund Brenda Tracy’s visit to Colgate. In an effort to ensure maximum attendance and encourage all students to truly listen and reflect upon Brenda’s story, we called on all recognized Greek organizations and the office of the Dean of the College to halt social hosting during her visit,”  he said. 

After attending her presentation, Cousin reflected. 

 “I was extremely glad that the resolution received unanimous support from the Senate. I believe the resolution was extremely effective and am grateful that I, along with the student body, could hear her incredibly important and powerful talk,” he said. 

Tracy previously came to Colgate to speak to athletes in the fall of 2017 and left such an impression that she was asked to speak to the wider audience of Colgate. Tracy began this presentation by sharing that she had just been at a Colgate basketball game where the athletes had created t-shirts with her motto, #SetTheExpectation. 

Tracy warned the audience she was about to share her story of sexual assault, her experience as a survivor and her dedication to sexual assault prevention. She encouraged attendees to take care of themselves and be respectful of each other. 

She warned that this was going to be a difficult and upsetting journey, but to remember that her story is also full of hope. 

Tracy asked the audience to raise their hand if they were under 24-years-old – which was almost everyone. She explained that she has two sons who are 24- and 25-years-old, meaning she could be the mother of most people in the audience, and wanted everyone to keep that in mind while she told her story. 

In recounting her story, Tracy took the audience back to 1998 in Oregon, where she was living as a single mother. Tracy was going out with a female friend to a male friend’s house where there was drinking. She explained that she didn’t like to drink – she didn’t like the idea of losing control of her surroundings. But after several pleas from those around her, she relented and had a drink, which affected her more intensely than she expected. 

Tracy proceeded to share the violent acts of sexual assault she endured, in which multiple men raped Tracy over the course of six hours. As she told her story, it was clear that Tracy was reliving a horrific experience of gang rape and the following trauma as the stunned crowd listened. 

After sharing her experience, Tracy discussed the process of identifying herself as a survivor. When she was taken to the hospital by her mother the next morning, her sexual assault nurse examiner had a significant impact on Tracy, who earlier that day had resolved to commit suicide upon returning home from the hospital. The nurse unknowingly gave her inspiration to keep going and to help others. Shortly after her encounter with the nurse, Tracy enrolled in nursing school. 

Tracy emphasized the feeling of living a double life. As she was getting back on her feet and becoming a successful nurse, she was also engaging in a daily struggle to keep her will to live. 

Tracy had initially sought to press charges against her four assailants, two of whom were members of the Oregon State University (OSU) football team and one of whom was a recruit. However, she was discouraged by the district attorney (DA), who claimed she lacked a strong case. Tracy ended up dropping the charges, and faced intense scrutiny and accusations of lying from her community. Instead of supporting her through an experience of trauma, those around her cast shadows of doubt and hatred around Tracy. 

After years of privately struggling, Tracy had her story published by Oregon Live newspaper reporter John Cazano in November 2014. Tracy explained that sharing her experience was an act of desperation, not courage – she felt that she was at a dead end and realized that there wasn’t a downside to letting the world know what was done to her.

This time, however, her community didn’t turn on her and instead reached out with acts of gratitude and their own stories. The President of OSU issued her a public apology, as did the head coach of the OSU football team Mike Riley.

Upon meeting Tracy and hearing her experience, Cazano decided to launch his own investigation. He uncovered that the OSU football team had decided they “couldn’t afford” a rape scandal because they wanted to receive a large grant to renovate their stadium. Cazano uncovered that Tracy’s four assailants had given confessions – but her rape kit was thrown out before the statute of limitations had expired and essentially everything was swept under the rug. In 1999, the OSU football stadium was renovated. 

Tracy tearfully admitted that she believed her human worth had been given a price tag – the cost of that stadium. 

However, 16 years after her brutal assault, Tracy’s story finally got attention, with the help of Cazano. Since sharing her story, she has helped pass legislation surrounding rape in Oregon, inspired survivors to come forward and started powerful conversations across the country. Tracy serves on the NCAA Commission to Combat Sexual Violence, and speaks to students around the country. 

Tracy explained that she tries to primarily work with men. 

“If women could stop this, we would have already done it,” Tracy said. 

Tracy cited the supporting statistic that roughly 10 percent of men are committing sexual assault crimes, and that means that 90 percent have been silent bystanders. Tracy explained that after sharing her story, she encourages men to talk to each other, share their beliefs and align themselves with their communities. 

Tracy explained that she can’t rationalize good people who do and say nothing, because being silent actually speaks volumes. When she was asked to share her story with the OSU football team, she told them she hated Riley for the way he handled her rape allegations and minimized her experience as his players’ so-called “bad choices.” Riley was present during her presentation, Tracy reflected, and held himself accountable before his players.  

When Tracy opened up the floor for questions, a student asked how she advises women to approach this subject with the men in their lives. 

Tracy responded that it has to be in positive terms. 

“Yes, they are the problem but also talk about them as the solution. Invite them to the table, gather together to do this together and encourage conversations,” Tracy said. 

Sophomore Eliza Judson reflected on Tracy’s visit. 

“Words can’t even describe how brave and strong Brenda Tracy is. Her experiences with sexual assault are completely heartbreaking and disturbing, and yet she has found a way to turn them around to now help others and make change,” Judson said.

Junior Francesca Fernandez, who also serves as Colgate’s Panhellenic President, offered her reaction to Tracy’s presentation and what her visit means to Colgate. 

“Tracy’s story urged us as a community to foster three characteristics: respect, care and love each other. Brenda gave us powerful visuals, encouraged males to view themselves as the solution and emphasized to women that rape is not a consequence of any situation,” Fernandez said. “I think moving forward, keeping Brenda Tracy’s story and advice in mind, Colgate can continue to better itself through fostering important conversations and work from organizations like Haven. Hopefully, this will create a safer community.”

Senior Claire Foussard also shared her thoughts after hearing from Tracy. 

“As someone who has been fairly involved with conversations about sexual assault on campus through Haven and One Love, I felt both empowered and reassured by Brenda Tracy’s talk. Her story was incredibly moving, but her message that everyone must work together to change the climate that enables and excuses sexual violence deeply resonated with me,” Foussard said. 

Foussard also responded to how she felt about Tracy separating the three presentations by gender. 

“In dividing the audience by gender, I think her call to action was even more impactful, as she specified the need for the 90 percent of men who are not perpetrators of sexual assault to join the fight against sexual violence in order for change to occur,” Foussard said. “I hope that every woman in that room understood the importance of women’s solidarity in the face of such injustice.”

In the past year, allegations of sexual assault have been brought against members of the Greek fraternity community. While this is not a problem exclusive to Greek organizations or Colgate, it is a reminder that the student body must strive to work together with the same devotion and positive energy as Tracy.  Tracy encouraged the Colgate community to foster responses of compassion and respect when dealing with experiences of trauma. 

Contact Maddie Veronis at m[email protected]