The Monument Quilt: Giving Voice to Victims of Sexual Assault

Sharing Stories

On Tuesday, March 29, Colgate’s Hall of Presidents (HOP) was transformed to display the Monument Quilt, a public art project that brings together the words of sexual assault survivors and their supporters.

The Monument Quilt project began in 2013. It was created by the Baltimore-based art-activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. The Monument Quilt is described as “a public healing space by and for survivors of rape and abuse,” according to the  group’s website. The display of the quilt squares will culminate in Washington, D.C., where it will cover over a mile of the National Mall to spell “Not Alone.”

FORCE was founded by Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle in 2012, who led a brown bag earlier that day in the Center for Women’s Studies. They were joined by FORCE member Deletta Gillespie, Director of Music at the Spiritual Empowerment Center in Baltimore where the quilt first began. The brown bag outlined the goals and inspiration behind the quilt before its display in the HOP.

About 50 volunteers helped set up and take down the quilt at Colgate. The event was co-sponsored by the Colgate Arts Council, the Center for Women’s Studies, LGBTQ Initiatives, the Shaw Wellness Center and the Office of Institutional Advancement.

Silence filled the HOP as students, faculty and Colgate community members filtered through to read the messages on the quilt. On the expansive quilt’s red fabric, different stories are written, painted and stitched. Since its creation three years ago, the quilt has traveled to 22 different cities across the United States.

A driving force of the project is to change our culture into one in which victims are publicly supported instead of shamed.

“The quilt resists the popular and narrow narrative of how sexual violence occurs by telling many stories, not one,” the Monument Quilt website states.

Some messages on the quilt detail the stories of how the sexual assault occurred, while others contain a declaration:

“I invited him into my home, my bed, not my body!”

 “It was Rape. There, I said it.”

“Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are.”

Others contain messages of support for survivors, and the experiences of people close to them.

“You are not alone.”

“Sometimes she can’t let me love her.”

In the creation of the Monument Quilt, Brancato and Nagle were inspired by the ideas of Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, which points out that there are many public monuments to traumas, particularly for veterans of war, but not for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. There is no such public process of mourning on that subject. After reading this, Brancato and Nagle decided to create a series of temporary monuments.

Since Herman’s book, such monuments are not unprecedented. In 1987, the NAMES Project Foundation undertook a similar project, creating a memorial quilt for HIV/AIDS victims and survivors. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed on the National Mall, just as FORCE intends to do with their Monument Quilt. The AIDS quilt project was highly successful in raising public awareness and changing the national conversation about HIV/AIDS.

Program Assistant of Women’s Studies Allie Fry was integral in bringing the Monument Quilt  to Colgate’s campus. She has been a supporter of the art-activist group since its beginnings in 2012 and blogged for FORCE before coming to work at Colgate last year. She described the impact of the quilt on the Colgate community as a powerful moment.

“The space felt very reverent. People were mostly silent as they walked through to experience the quilt. Students comforted each other, and community members created their own quilt squares. It was powerful to see members of our community engage in a meditative and empathetic way. Women’s Studies has been very focused on making the conversation on sexual violence intersectional and victim-centered. I hope this is one of many efforts we see at Colgate to offer survivors and their supporters to process,” Fry said.

The quilt was on display from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The adjoining room of the HOP contained materials for Colgate students to contribute a patch to the quilt if they wished. Counselors were available in the space to assist students with the intense experience of the quilt, and there was a closing ceremony before it was put away.

Fry explained that the quilt was a major step toward improving the treatment offered to survivors on Colgate’s campus.

“Colgate is very focused on prevention of sexual assault through programs like Yes Means Yes and Bystander Intervention. We need to be just as focused on supporting the survivors in our community. After the Speak Out last semester, it felt like wounds had been reopened without much structural follow up. I thought it was important to bring the quilt to offer a space that is specifically by and for survivors, that prioritizes their healing, that shows that there is no one way in which we experience or respond to violence,” Fry said.

Senior Casidhe Holland spoke about the quilt’s large size.

“The quilt is a very incredible experience, and what’s crazy is that only part of it was shown. You think the HOP is huge, but the quilt is so enormous that only a fraction of it was even on display. I think it was a very emotional experience because you’re walking around and there are so many squares. It’s overwhelming to realize that every one of those squares represents someone who has experienced sexual assault or who is a supporter,” Holland said.

Some students felt that it was a reflection of the changes that have been happening at Colgate.

“My first year here at Colgate there was so much silence around sexual assault, around rape culture, around how much it happens and how much it gets covered up on college campuses. It was really quiet. No one was talking about it.  Starting my sophomore year it really began. I started to see the ripples activating. I know it was going on before my first year also, but at the very beginning I just didn’t see it. Over the past couple years, especially this year with the Speak Out, and the human chain around Women Studies, there has been so much student activism around sexual assault and people are starting to realize this is a problem. This coming to Colgate is huge,” Holland said.

Senior Samantha Hom, Sexual and Gender-Based Intern for Women’s Studies who helped to organize the event, also felt that it opened important dialogue at Colgate.

“I think it was such an important event because of the conversations on campus following the protest last semester surrounding survivor-centric initiatives and programs. The Monument Quilt is survivor-centric because it is a public healing space created by and for survivors that shows a range of stories and experiences. It also speaks volumes to one of the slogans of the movement, ‘Stories Not Statistics.’ The focus of the quilt is telling stories that are so often silenced and brushed under the rug. It’s very powerful to see such public support for an issue that is so often publicly shamed,” Hom said.

Senior Jessie Sullivan, a volunteer at the event, hoped that the event would continue to inspire people even after the quilt has left Colgate.

“I think it was very important for the Monument Quilt to bring people together, to allow people to have solemn moments alone, and to show our community that this is a chance for us to mobilize and make real changes. I hope that these feelings don’t fade as they so often do, but that we can use this momentum to change rape culture at Colgate, hold perpetrators accountable and support survivors,” Sullivan said.

FORCE has completed several activist art projects to date. It became active in 2012, inspired by legislation intended to control women’s bodies and the discourse around it. The two goals of the group are to combat rape culture and to imagine a world where consent is how we talk about sex, and to imagine a world where survivors are supported rather than shamed.

FORCE garnered national attention in 2012 when it created the Pink Loves Consent Line, a viral website announcing a fake underwear line displaying messages about consent as a parody of Victoria’s Secret’s problematic “sexy” underwear messages. Following the success of this project, the group creating a parody Playboy Party List that included a consensual sexual behavior guide.

The current focus of the group is on The Monument Quilt and community organizing. The quilt will be displayed in Baltimore this weekend, along with billboards and bus-stop ads all over the city with messages of support for survivors.