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A convening with meaning

April 3, 2018

Art isn’t always about entertaining the masses and making people feel good — it can also be used as a powerful tool for social justice and cultural change.

That’s what “The CounterAct Convening,” an ASU-led grass-roots effort to deploy multidisciplinary artists to foster dialogue and address the national challenge of sexual assault and violence through cultural solutions, was all about.

Timed to kick off Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Convening is part of the CounterAct initiative, which aims to spur 880 artistic acts to counter the 880 acts of sexual violence that occur each day in the United States. The pilot program debuted April 4 at ASU’s Memorial Union on the Tempe campus and is intended as a national model.

“One of the most powerful things the arts can do is make the invisible visible,” said Steven J. Tepper, the dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, which is helping to coordinate the campus-wide effort. “The arts have incredible capacity to interrogate our world in a way to see things we didn’t see before.”

Tepper called the initiative a “bold experiment and an urgent issue” where artists can offer ideas, talent and solutions to prevent and counteract sexual violence.

“Collectively, we think we can shift the culture,” Tepper said. 

The daylong event drew more than 150 ASU faculty, staff and students to address sexual violence prevention, response strategies and ways to promote healthy relationships. It also featured workshops and a keynote address from filmmaker Tani Ikeda, creator of the #SurvivorLoveLetter project and co-founder of imMEDIAte Justice, a nonprofit that supports young female artists working with virtual reality.

Ikeda told the audience that she was raped several years ago a few days before Valentine’s Day — a day that, for many survivors, is an anniversary of sexual assault and violence.

“I came of age how most girls become women — through violence,” said Ikeda, who said she suffered through years of turmoil and nightmares and at times contemplated ending her life. She said she began to heal when she wrote herself a love letter three years ago, which she called a “radical act of self-love” and was the genesis of #SurvivorLoveLetter.

Ikeda said her art has become a healing balm that she has applied to all areas of her life — but she still has her bad days.

“I still wake up with fear, depression and rage,” Ikeda said. “But when we do emerge and rise from the ashes, we come back more beautiful and walk with more purpose in our art.”

Other topics explored included trauma-informed social and civic artistic practices; sexual violence prevention and response strategies; and using art and design as a tool for cultural change.

Nik Zaleski, co-creative director of CounterAct, said participants of the initiative will be eligible for a seed-grant program supporting creative actions. The actions, she said, will vary in size from creating a Facebook meme on sexual violence to an app for Alexa to a yearlong salon series hosted by several artists.

“These cultural problems demand cultural solutions,” said Zaleski, who is a civic practice theater artist rooted in Chicago. “ASU is a leader in innovation, and what’s more innovative than centering creative practices to address this problem on a national scale?”

Freshman Djuan Porter, a theater major in ASU's School of Film, Dance and Theatre, said he attended the Wednesday event because he “fell in love with the mission of CounterAct.”

“I will take some sort of action because it’s for the betterment of society,” said Porter, who said he’ll most likely gear his creative action in the direction of the LGBTQ community. “I’ve always been a person who’s cared about other people.”

CounterAct is planning a large-scale multimedia dance for April 2019. The dance will include 880 intergenerational survivors and will weave together past and present learning and knowledge. For more information, visit the CounterAct website. To apply for a CounterAct seed grant, visit here.

Top photo: Filmmaker Tani Ikeda, creator of the #SurvivorLoveLetter project and co-founder of nonprofit imMEDIAte Justice, answers questions about her video project at the Counteract Convening event Wednesday on the Tempe campus. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

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