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Penn English professor Salamishah Tillet’s “Story of a Rape Survivor" performance on Monday night featured Broadway dancers, singers and award-winning artists.

Credit: Lulu Wang

On Monday night, Penn students and faculty came together to watch English professor Salamishah Tillet’s story of rape, survival and recovery, titled “Story of a Rape Survivor.”

Tillet, her sister Scheherazade and a cast of award-winning artists performed dance, song, poetry and acting as forms of art therapy. The performance is meant to be therapeutic not only for the performers, some of whom are sexual assault survivors, but also for any audience members who may be survivors.

After Tillet was raped twice as an undergraduate at Penn, art therapy was one of the main methods she used to cope with her pain.

“The systems that [are supposed to] protect us don’t work .... What do you do in lieu of that? And what is the role of art to provide a space that may not change the structures of the society, but may help survivors navigate those structures more effectively and hopefully?” Tillet said.

SOARS, which travels to college campuses all over the country, is just one part of Tillet’s Chicago-based organization A Long Walk Home. The nonprofit uses the performing arts to empower girls and women and fight violence, rape and sexual abuse. ALWH makes change through not only performances, but also the Girl/Friends program, which teaches high school girls and boys to be leaders and resources for each other when it comes to issues of sexual assault.

Salamishah and Scheherazade Tillet created SOARS in the early 2000s when they were both young students.

“It really was us as students trying to figure out a way to heal ourselves, but also to share this story of healing with other communities of students. The more you share the story, the more you find so many other people have been affected by this issue, either directly or second-hand,” Tillet said.

Broadway dancer Hettie Barnhill, a survivor herself, joined the SOARS cast in 2006 and is a strong believer in the ability of art to heal, especially through dance and movement.

“Usually when I’m requested to teach a class, the first thing I’m trying to do is get my students ... back in ownership of who they are physically,” Barnhill said.

She said that when people go through traumatic experiences, they sometimes don’t feel comfortable in their bodies. But when they learn about coordination and alignment of the body through breathing and stretching, her students begin to open up and feel more at ease with themselves.

“You don’t leave feeling depressed. You should leave feeling uplifted because you see [Tillet’s] growth,” she said. “You see the arc that her life took before, during and after. So you see that she’s a survivor.”

When asked about how Penn students can stop rape on campus, Tillet said the best way is simply to intervene, pointing to the recently released AAU sexual assault climate survey, which says that of students who said they saw someone “acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner,” 58 percent did nothing.

“We’re beyond a tipping point where this issue has to be taken seriously by college administrators and university officials to create a climate in which all students are safe,” Tillet said. “This is an issue about how universities are going to create an atmosphere in which women are not treated as second class citizens.”

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