MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Video re-enactments of realistic social scenarios and a discussion panel including Columbia High School students, administrators and faculty opened a dialogue about how to navigate difficult topics like sexual assault and sexual violence during an interactive event presented by The Uncomfortable Conversation Inc. and hosted at the school on Oct. 11.
The Uncomfortable Conversation Inc. was founded by CHS graduate Sarah Pierson Beaulieu, who is dedicated to normalizing conversations about sexual violence, particularly among young men. According to the organization’s mission, conversations are accessible, practical and scalable tools that drive individual, organizational and cultural change.
The event began with an exercise designed to highlight how often, if at all, audience members have had conversations with friends or family members about sexual violence. Attendees were asked if they had discussed this topic with parents or guardians, their own children, or a niece or nephew. Beaulieu then asked audience members if any had taken a formal class or training regarding sexual assault or violence, or if they’d had a supportive conversation with someone who revealed they had experienced it.
The results of the exercise showed that, despite the need for this topic to be addressed, there is much work to be done to increase the number of conversations about it.
“We’ve done a lot of for perpetrators by staying silent. Now that we are talking about it more openly, we are cutting off their pathways. You will have people who have experienced it who have never had any family conversations or classes about it,” Beaulieu said at the event. “There is power and transformation in breaking the ice, but it doesn’t have to be heavy work.”
Instead, The Uncomfortable Conversation uses a variety of YouTube videos that showcase positive and meaningful ways to have conversations or approach situations that have the potential for sexual assault or violence.
Some of the videos shown at the event include: “How to Ask for a Kiss,” “How to Talk about Netflix and Chill” and “How to Drop Assumptions about Survivors.”
Following the videos, a panel discussion was held that included CHS students Gabriella Hayek and Mikael Lacruz, CHS Principal Kalisha Morgan, and health education teachers Allison Cahill and Pat Hurley.
Students discussed how to handle themselves in scenarios where sexual violence may arise, while teachers shared their thoughts on how to students with the process.
“I remember how uncomfortable I was talking about it in the beginning, but I’ve come a long way since then because we’ve had so many conversations about it now,” Cahill said during the panel discussion. “Students often ask me who’s responsible in a situation when both people are intoxicated, or how to ask for consent in a way that feels natural and not so scripted, and I have the tools to help them with that. I also try to focus on what healthy relationships look like, not just unhealthy behaviors and relationships.”
Beaulieu said she started the organization after she noticed a significant trend in the types of questions she was receiving after she did a TEDx talk in 2016 on having difficult conversations about sexual violence.
“The Uncomfortable Conversation Inc. started as a way to answer questions. What I found was that people were really hungry about practical ways to support survivors, navigate consent, and engage as allies and advocates against sexual violence,” Beaulieu said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I thought the best way to do that was through videos and that’s what we have been doing for the past year. The response has been great in the communities that we have been able to engage. We seek to give people the practical hands-on guidance of how to have these conversations in meaningful and productive ways.”
Beaulieu said her organization focuses on having such conversations with audiences who likely have less experience discussing the topics, which is why the organization’s audience is primarily, though not exclusively, male. The organization’s goal is to begin with college campuses and then expand to K to 12 schools and employers.
“The discomfort of talking about sexual assault and violence doesn’t go away but we can become more comfortable with having the conversation,” Beaulieu said.
Photos by Shanee Frazier