By Alana Bremner
When Michael Parks began campaigning for student body president in the spring of 2016, one of his goals was to make “It’s On Us” a household name at the University of South Carolina. One year later, student government hosted the “It’s On Us Hero Gala,” raising over $12,000 in a single night.
“It’s On Us” was founded, in 2014, as a White House initiative, encouraging men and women across America to be active supporters in ending campus sexual assault. Consent education, increasing bystander intervention and creating an environment that supports survivors are the three core pillars of “It’s On Us.”
“Sexual violence is an issue here and every other college campus in the country,” Parks says of his decision to initially take on the national campaign. “I thought, how can we as students really do something tangible?”
Parks is right about the issue of sexual violence on college campuses in the United States. According to the “It’s On Us Two Year Report,” one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college. The report also states that in 75-80 percent of cases the victim knows the attacker in some way, and 91 percent of rapes are committed by serial offenders.
“The impact of sexual violence on a college campus is tremendous,” says Mary Dell Hayes, executive director of Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. “For our whole nation this is an epidemic, but when you hone in on the statistics related to college students, the rate at which people are impacted by sexual assault is even higher.”
When Parks was elected student body president, he had the power to add positions to his executive cabinet. He created a committee specifically for “It’s On Us.” Parks enlisted Mary Copeland Cane, a marketing major with her own story, and Lindsay Bratun, a public relations major with student government experience, as the committee’s co-directors.
Although Bratun and Cain share a title, their roles are very different. “I had a big learning curve about the message,” Bratun said. “And MC had a big learning curve about how to implement something.”
In the spring of 2016, when Bratun was appointed co-director of “It’s On Us,” she already had an impressive background in student government. She had previously served on freshman council and as secretary of alumni relations.
As a result of these positions, Bratun had an understanding of the logistics of student government, experience in event planning and extensive contacts within the university. She played a key role in creating a website, coordinating meetings and organizing sign-ups for events for “It’s On Us.”
Cain’s contribution as co-director is different. Cain, a sexual assault survivor, has spent the past year sharing her story with student groups at USC. “It’s the most valuable aspect of this whole thing,” Bratun says of Cain’s story.
When I interview Cain, she offers to give me her “spiel.” The “spiel” that she estimates she has shared with 5,300 people since becoming co-director of “It’s On Us” in spring 2016.
Cain is well educated, wealthy and comes from a supportive family. And the spring of her sophomore year of college, she was beaten and raped in her parent’s home.
She didn’t tell her parents until six months later, when she requested they come to Columbia. She asked them to sign a document agreeing they would not act on what she was about to tell them. Her parents stayed in Columbia for a week after she opened up to them about her assault. They helped her find a new therapist, and they attended therapy as well.
What followed was a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and boys. After a night of partying, she called her mom extremely upset, and her mom insisted she call her dad. Knowing his daughter hadn’t hit rock bottom yet, Cain’s dad had secretly stayed in Columbia.
Her parents moved to Columbia for two and a half months. Anything she needed, they were there for her. They were determined to keep Cain in school, and together, the three of them made the tough decision not to press charges against her attacker for reasons Cain preferred not to discuss.
“I tell my story for three reasons,” Cain says. “Because I am so blessed, because it’s awkward and because there were people who didn’t and still don’t believe me.”
In addition to sharing her story, Cain works closely with Bratun to plan events for the campaign. In the fall, the duo worked with Parks to coordinate the “It’s On Us Week of Action” with a modest $200 budget. Students were encouraged to sign a pledge at welcoming events and activities throughout the week.
The pledge, which is a slightly modified version of the one shown on itsonus.org, reads: “As a Gamecock, I will RECOGNIZE and IDENTIFY when sexual assault is present. I will EDUCATE our peers about the risks and presence of sexual assault at USC. I will SUPPORT affected Gamecocks in this mission to change the culture at our university.”
The “It’s On Us Week of Action” kicked off on a Monday with a kickball tournament. Over 150 students, including athletes, students involved in Greek life and students from student government, signed the pledge that night. On Tuesday, students were invited to discuss sexual assault in the media with the on campus group IRIS, Individuals Respecting Identities and Sexualities.
On Wednesday night, the “Supporting Survivors Candlelight Vigil” was hosted at Rutledge Chapel. Both Parks and Bratun regard this night as the most powerful moment of the “It’s On Us” campaign yet at USC. A variety of speakers read the letter Joe Biden wrote to the “Stanford Survivor.” These speakers included survivors, parents of survivors and powerful leaders in the USC community.
On Thursday, SASS Self-Defense leaders Whitney Pike and Shannon Henry led an empowering afternoon. The week ended on Friday with a University of South Carolina public service announcement.
On March 30, the committee hosted the “It’s On Us Here Gala” at Spirit Communications Stadium. The purpose of the event was to raise awareness about campus sexual assault. Keri Potts, a sexual assault survivor and senior sports PR executive, and Mark Ellis, a leader in scripted sports action for Hollywood productions, were guest speakers.
Tickets to the cocktail attire event included food, a cash bar, live music, a silent auction, a photo booth and an opportunity to interact with the guest speakers. Companies and organizations could choose to sponsor “It’s On Us.” Cantina 76, a local restaurant, and Delta Delta Delta, a sorority on campus, were among the sponsors. The event raised over $12,000 which will allow the campaign to continue at USC.
As Parks and Cain prepare to graduate in May and Bratun takes on a new role in student government, they have high hopes for the future of “It’s On Us.”
Parks is hoping the new student body president, Ross Losordo, will codify the position of “It’s On Us” co-director. Codifying the position will officially add it to the Constitution of Student Government. This would ensure that “It’s On Us” remained a part of student government every term, no matter who the student body president is.
Bratun and Cain hope “It’s On Us” will continue to use its unorthodox tactics, pairing fun events with raw education, to reach every corner of USC. “We’re gonna come together, we’re gonna talk about this, we’re gonna reach a common consensus and we’re gonna move forward,” Bratun says. “Action oriented change.”
Bremner is a public relations seniior