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Olympic Champion Kayla Harrison to Deliver Keynote Address at F&M's Take Back the Night

  • Kayla Harris
  • Kayla Harris (Photo by Walter Hawkes)

Olympic champion Kayla Harrison, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who went on to become the first American to win the gold medal in judo in 2012, will deliver the keynote address at a student-organized "Take Back the Night" event, Wednesday, April 10, at Franklin & Marshall College.

Harrison, who won the gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, will share the story of her journey as an athlete and assault survivor during a talk starting at 7 p.m. at F&M's Roschel Performing Arts Center.

The talk, which is free and open to the public, will be followed by a private gathering in which survivors are invited to to share their stories with the campus community. The testimonials will be led by Angie Epifano, a former Amherst College student whose experiences as a survivor of sexual assault have been widely chronicled by her college newspaper and national media.

Members of the public and the media are invited to Harrison's talk, but the testimonial portion of the event is not public.

Organized by the student group Sexual Assault and Violence Education (S.A.V.E.) in conjunction with the Alice Drum Women's Center, the annual Take Back the Night is intended to inspire a campus discussion about sexual assault and dating and domestic violence nationally. Harrison's experiences serve as an example of perseverance in the face of violence, said Michelle Carroll, president of S.A.V.E.

"Kayla did not allow silence to stop her from speaking out against her assaulter," Carroll said. "Kayla's confidence and conviction of self are an example that will benefit the F&M community."

Harrison, who began practicing judo at age 6, revealed 10 years later that she had been sexually abused by her longtime coach while she was in Ohio. She eventually moved from Ohio to Massachusetts, where she began training with new coaches, two-time bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jim Pedro Sr. Harrison has said that, before working with the Pedros, she had considered suicide and had grown to "hate" judo, but she persevered, and her new coaches became her surrogate family. She later faced her abuser, offering a victim impact statement during the sentencing of her former coach.

Harrison, who draws from her experiences to empower others and has told her story to Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Time and other news outlets, said she is excited to participate in Franklin & Marshall's Take Back The Night event.

"Since winning Olympic Gold, I have tried to take every opportunity available to shine a light on issues of abuse," she said in an email. "I'm flattered that Franklin & Marshall has invited me, and I'm inspired to see a college dedicated to these important issues. I look forward to an uplifting and empowering event."

F&M's Take Back the Night is among dozens of observances organized nationwide and internationally each year as a way to promote an open discussion between men and women about the consequences of sexual assault. Since the first documented Take Back the Night observance in 1975 in Philadelphia, advocates have organized similar events to allow survivors to "take back their voices" by creating safe communities and respectful relationships through awareness events and initiatives," according to the Take Back the Night Foundation website

"It is an opportunity to end the pervasive silence surrounding sexual assault," Carroll said. "We observe Take Back the Night because of the statistic one in four: one in four college-aged women will experience sexual assault by the time they graduate college. We observe Take Back the Night because we are a campus and a community that cares about this issue."

Beth Graybill, director of the Women's Center and an adjunct associate professor of women's and gender studies, worked with S.A.V.E. to bring Harrison to campus.

"This event is so important to counter the stigma and shame that many survivors feel by reminding them that they are not alone and that others have come through similar experiences and moved on as survivors, even becoming champions, like Kayla," Graybill said.

Epifano, whose experience at Amherst prompted a dialog on that campus that led administrators to re-examine the school's policies for handling complaints of sexual assault and the services provided to victims, said she believes there is a "medieval-esque taboo" surrounding sexual assault, and events such as Take Back the Night are an important way to change that.

"Take Back the Night is integral to helping survivors understand that they are not alone in their tribulations, and showing the community that as survivors we will not remain silent and will no longer be afraid," she said.

Epifano plans to tell her own story about finding the courage to become "a survivor rather than a victim."