Retriever Courage one year later: UMBC community listens, learns, and acts

One year ago, the UMBC community spoke out about experiences, urgent concerns, and hopes for change related to sexual and gender-based harassment and violence. This September 18, student, faculty, staff, and administrative leaders of the Retriever Courage initiative hosted an open gathering to update the campus on early progress and next steps toward fostering a campus climate in which all feel a sense of belonging, safety, and support. The event drew about 150 UMBC community members.

Candace Dodson-Reed

“This is an important time in UMBC’s history, and we all must show up in this work,” said Candace Dodson-Reed ‘96, English, chief of staff in the President’s Office. Dodson-Reed will now also serve as executive director of the newly created Office of Equity and Inclusion, which will promote and coordinate the university’s core values of inclusive excellence, equity, and diversity. 

“I am constantly inspired by the students, faculty, and staff who are dedicating their time to Retriever Courage. I tell people that I dropped my daughter off at college this fall, and I want the same level of care for our UMBC students as I want for her.”

The event began with opportunities for community members to speak one-on-one with representatives of groups that have been implementing change on campus, including the Division of Information Technology, Counseling Center, UMBC Police (including the department’s new comfort dog, Chip), University Health Services, We Believe You, and the Women’s Center

UMBC’s new comfort dog, Chip, at the Retriever Courage Gathering Session, Sept. 2019.

Next, UMBC’s Retriever Courage Implementation Team spoke in a panel discussion. This included a Q&A session with attendees asking questions via notecards and an online submission form.

Facilitated by Dodson-Reed, the panel discussion included members of the Implementation Team. Student Advisory Committee Co-chairs Nadia BenAissa ‘20, gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, and Aliya Webermann, Ph.D. ’21, clinical and community psychology, participated. They were joined by Faculty/Staff Advisory Committee Co-chair Christine Mallinson, director of the Center for Social Science Scholarship and professor of language, literacy, and culture. Faculty/Staff Advisory Committee members Jess Myers, director of the Women’s Center, and Christopher Murphy, professor of psychology, also participated, along with Morgan Thomas ‘13, assistant general counsel. 

Community voices, community action

The discussion included powerful reflections by BenAissa and Webermann, on their feelings of anger and frustration a year ago, and the hard work, difficult conversations, and changes they have seen at UMBC since then.

BenAissa, who also serves as president of We Believe You, described the past year as an emotional time for her and for those involved in this work. “Last year, I was We Believe You’s discussion group leader, and I heard stories of how fellow student survivors were being let down,” she shared. “The University had not done well by our survivor community and something had to change. I can confidently say now that we are doing something, that Retriever Courage shows that the University cares about this issue and is working to make changes.” 

Today, BenAissa also serves as a member of Baltimore County’s Sexual Assault Investigations Task Force, created by County Executive John Olszewski, Jr., Ph.D. ’17.

Webermann, providing a graduate student perspective on the Student Advisory Committee, shares, “I feel we are making significant changes beyond sitting here and saying we are. I’m really excited by it. Students have been a big part of Retriever Courage. We’re not overlooked and ignored, and I appreciate that. We want you to know that change is happening.”

Mallinson spoke to the engagement of faculty, staff, and students over the past year to move forward in a way that truly reflected the experiences, values, and needs of people within the UMBC community. “Student activism really galvanized this initiative, but is has become overwhelmingly community-based,” she said. “The level of commitment by a diverse group of faculty and staff from across the University speaks to how this issue hits home for all of us as we do this work on behalf of all members of the UMBC community.”

“There is more to do”

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski closed the event by thanking everyone involved in this effort, and specifically crediting the broader gender and women’s studies community and We Believe You students for their guidance. 

“People are…being honest in saying what we are doing well and what we could do better,” he told the group. “We need to continue to be vigilant and make this work part of our DNA at UMBC. Resources matter, and we are determined to be as responsive and supportive as possible. We’ve made considerable progress, but there is more to do.”

The campus community gathers to learn more about the work of Retriever Courage at the Retriever Courage Gathering Session, Sept. 2019.

Progress shared at the gathering session stems from the spring 2019 release of three reports with recommendations on sexual violence/misconduct prevention and response. These reports were compiled by three groups: the Student Advisory Committee, Faculty/Staff Advisory Committee, and external consultants Jody Shipper, J.D., and Cherie Scricca, Ed.D. of Grand River Solutions, Inc.

In summer 2019, the Retriever Courage Implementation Team created workgroups focusing on core areas highlighted by the three reports. The groups focused on care and support, student training, the Title IX process, and communications. Their goal was to carry forward action items recommended in the reports. 

The UMBC community can learn more about these items and progress to date through a new dashboard, developed by members of the communications workgroup. 

Featured image: “Know About IX” informational poster at the Retriever Courage Gathering Session, Sept. 2019. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.