Post by Tyler Strosnider, Honors Civic Engagement
N.B. Profiles in Civic Leadership are written by Honors Civic Engagement students. Students selected individuals they believed to exemplify civic leadership, conducted interviews and wrote the profiles.
I’m outside a door covered with messages of inspiration waiting for the infamous Sarah Taylor Mayhak: an SCOM professor known for her kindness, colorful style and bubbly personality. Just last fall, I had Sarah Taylor Mayhak for SCOM 123H, and was hoping to collaborate with her yet again on an interview to share her unique story.
Not only does Sarah Taylor Mayhak teach SCOM 123, she also is a strong advocate for sexual assault and harassment for both women and marginalized groups. To grow her advocacy work, Sarah Taylor Mayhak teaches SCOM 301: Feminist Blogging; a class that teaches students how to write advocacy pieces and helps create interests for advocacy for her students. She also took nearly 40 students to the 2019 Women’s March on Washington and orchestrated the annual JMU V-Day Performance: an event that theorizes ways on how to end sexual violence for women and marginalized groups.
Her reasons for involvement is no paved road, however. During the summer that separated her freshman and sophomore year of undergrad, Sarah Taylor Mayhak was sexually assaulted by a former mentor. Before this moment, Sarah believed that anyone who had experienced sexual assault was likely by the hands of someone they never knew- someone who jumps out when you are not expecting it. At that moment, her perception completely changed, as she now understood more of the complexity and the many ways people experience sexual assault and harassment.
Spurred by this experience, Sarah Taylor Mayhak decided to take a Women and Gender Studies class. Not only did this class change her life, but this also sets the stage for how she will begin her engagement. In this class she learned that in the state of Wisconsin, the presence of alcohol, moreover, intoxication, means that consent does not exist in a sexual encounter. This broadened her perception of sexual assault, and in some ways, gave her permission to finally disclose her experience with her mentors at the time. From there, she joined College Feminists and the V-Day Coalition on her undergrad campus. Together, these clubs allowed her to plug her experience into advocacy.
As she continued to work on her undergrad, Sarah discovered the tough reality of sexual assault on college campuses. The more and more you talk about sexual assault, the more and more discoveries you find that sexual assault is seen as a right of passage and a norm for many women on college campuses.
We now travel to a more recent time: her first day of teaching here at JMU. There, Sarah Taylor Mayhak disclosed her experiences with sexual assault and advocacy in an attempt to make students feel like they had an advocate for them on this campus. It is important to note however, that because university staff are mandatory reporters, students were open to discuss only what information they wanted to disclose, and nothing more. By the end of the semester, students began to voluntarily come and talk to her about their sexual assault experiences they have had on our JMU campus. From there, her engagement in Harrisonburg began.
Sarah Taylor Mayhak defines her civic engagement based on the needs presented and shared by her students. For example, a group of eight students expressed interest in attending the 2019 Women’s March. As a faculty member with knowledge of our institutional structure,, she was able to look for resources, transportation possibilities and funding. Sarah felt that if students were left to their own devices to coordinate this civic action, it might mean taking off a day of work, paying for gas and parking out of pocket, and in turn, that may mean just giving up on the effort all together. Sarah found a need to help these students as this march fundamentally stands for what she believes in: seeing an issue and finding a way to bring it back to the people. With her expertise, this group slowly grew from 8 to 12, and then 12 to around 40!
By having her own personal experiences and working within the JMU bureaucracy, she has learned one major theme: unfortunately, social justice issues can and will be seen as partisan issues. Sarah believes the work she is doing is nonpartisan. But, for instance, when students asked to attend the Women’s March on Washington, folks in administration saw the work as inherently partisan, and would not support her initiatives. Therefore, by doing a lot more work to appeal to the other side, Sarah believes that reaching bipartisanship on a “partisan issue” is the biggest obstacle to overcome.
Sarah defines her civic leadership as having a responsibility and an obligation to gather the resources that students may not have the ability to obtain on their own. Whether this is for sharing their story or to obtain resources for a project, Sarah states that “it’s not about me, it’s about the students.”
Sarah uses many forms of media to interact with the public about her issues. First, she writes an explicit message on her syllabus about sexual assault, and her open door policy. She also teaches SCOM 301 at JMU, which produces daily blog posts written by her and her students to JMU’s oldest and only feminist blog, ShoutOut! While hosting events like V-Day, Sarah Taylor Mayhak is also known to reach out to community organizations and to invite people from the Harrisonburg community in these discussions. At this year’s V-DAY event, for example, Sarah welcomed Harrisonburg High School Senior and JMU Valley Scholar Paloma Rodriguez to the stage, and students raised nearly 300 dollars to benefit The Collin’s Center in Harrisonburg.
Above all, discussing sexual assault is no easy task, even if Sarah Taylor Mayhak does it like a pro. From making a divergence from sexual assault seem normal to fighting the long standing bureaucratic rules at JMU, Sarah Taylor Mayhak and her fellow advocates have a constant challenge when addressing sexual assault.
Sarah Taylor Mayhak finds hope with a recent addition to administration: Dr. Tim Miller. While at a panel, Dr. Miller stated that sexual assault is not a women’s issue, but a human issue. He went even further to suggest that Greek Culture is deeply tied to rape culture.
To learn more about the work of Sarah Taylor Mayhak’s advocacy for survivors of sexual assault and other feminist initiatives, visit ShoutOut! To add your voice to the conversation, Sarah Taylor Mayhak suggests taking SCOM 301: Feminist Blogging, offered in the Fall and Spring as an SCOM/WGSS elective, or even as a WRTC internship.