On a dreary day in February 2016, my criminal law professor stood before our class. We were set to begin our unit on sex crimes. However, before the lesson began, Professor Sam Marcosson had a message to deliver. He told us how law schools in the country had begun skipping this chapter due to the uncomfortable nature of the material. While assault and murder were tolerable topics, sexual misconduct was apparently the proverbial line in the sand. Professor Marcosson reassured us that we would in fact be studying this chapter; for how would we be able to change the world if we didn’t know what we were attempting to change?
By the end of that semester, I created Greek Law. The idea was simple. As Greek Life is one of the corners of higher education where sexual assault is most prevalent, I would use my newly-obtained sex crime knowledge to educate current fraternity men about consent and bystander intervention. I used stories from my time as a fraternity member to provide relatable examples of various consensual situations. I became a male ally who held other men accountable in a way that would inspire them to be allies as well. I gave my first lecture to my home chapter that fall. During the next four years, I traveled to schools throughout Kentucky, becoming a staple at Eastern Kentucky University as well as at Trinity High School in Louisville. I watched Greek Law transform from a student government project into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
By the end of 2019, Greek Law hit a glass ceiling. Despite being a popular presenter for groups at universities throughout the state, the program felt to be at a standstill. In my frustration, I recalled a lesson I learned as a member of the local music scene — if you want to blow up, you have to leave home.
With that in mind, I began constructing my 2020 plan. My largest initiative was to visit all 14 SEC universities. I scheduled visits to Auburn and the University of Missouri in March, University of Alabama in September and the University of Florida in December. Back home, I was set to lecture at my first HBCU, Simmons College, as well as set to make a visit to the University of Louisville School of Medicine. In April, I planned a tour of Indiana colleges including Indiana State University, the University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana. However, my most anticipated date would come in October, when I would lecture at my first Ivy League School, Dartmouth. At the beginning of 2020, my goal of turning Greek Law into a national program was well under way.
And then COVID came.
Imagine strategizing a plan to elevate your grassroots project to the next level. You work for months sending Facebook messages and emails to college students who rarely respond to you in a timely manner (if at all). You set dates, make lodging and travel arrangements on a shoestring budget of donations from local law firms and your GoFundMe. You use your self-taught Photoshop skills to create eye-catching promotional ads. You even have your publicist begin reaching out to local newspapers in the cities you’ll be visiting. You take several steps back and gaze at your planning board to see the result of your hard work; a 2020 speaking schedule that will introduce your brand of sexual assault prevention advocacy to universities across the country.
Now imagine a stranger barging in your office, walking over to your planning board, and using a lighter to set a corner of it on fire. The fire quickly spreads, engulfing the entire board, erasing all of the work you did and the progress you planned to make. And imagine not being able to do a thing to stop it.
COVID burned through Louisville, taking the lives of hundreds in its inferno. Many also felt an economic sting as retail stores temporarily closed and the service industry struggled under Governor Beshear’s regulations. The pandemic also had a profound effect on colleges and universities as schools scrambled to find a way to educate their students, many relying on in-person/online learning hybrid courses and canceling typical on-campus events such as guest lectures on sexual assault prevention. As COVID took away my undergraduate audiences, it changed Greek Law’s status from promising to lame duck in the span of two weeks.
In May, Dr. JoAnne Sweeny reached out to inform me that she and several other professors were launching an online legal journal. She wanted to know if I could pen an essay on the new Title IX regulations that United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had just released. I agreed, not knowing that this would be the shot of adrenaline to the heart of my stalled advocacy. I was granted a regular column and suddenly I had a new platform that would allow me to expand my message. As a speaker, I delivered the same address on consent and male responsibility year after year. As a writer however, I was able to dive deeper into rape culture, toxic and healthy masculinity, as well as specific topics such as revenge porn law and the confusing intersection of idolatry and sexual assault in the Black community. My writings also began getting picked up by other publications, helping to further amplify my voice.
In late August, I received a voicemail from a man in Philadelphia who had recently read my article “Extracurricular Activities: The Fetishization of Female Teachers in Sexual Misconduct Cases” in LEO. He was a survivor of sexual assault at the hands of one of his high school teachers and he thanked me for writing about the trauma that boys in these situations experience. While his call was heartwarming, it also sent a very important message. While I wasn’t standing on stage in a huge auditorium with a mic in my hand, my pen was spreading my message to the same people my original 2020 plan was set to do. I was reaching new audiences in new cities without having to step outside of Louisville.
The pandemic forced us to deviate from our status quo and travel down alternative paths. It made restaurants beef up their take-out policies in order to survive. It pushed primary school teachers to create Non-Traditional Instruction curriculums to safely educate students. And it compelled audience-based creators to find new ways to reach their crowds — be it through digital mediums like Zoom or, in my case, putting pen to paper. The pandemic made us adapt and, most importantly, in some ways, evolve.
As vaccines become available to the public, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel intensifies. Universities will soon go back to normal business and I will hit the road once again. This time however, I’ll be coming as a published writer with piles of academic research and my first book to stand on. And I have the disruption of the global pandemic to thank for making me a stronger advocate and elevating me to the next level. •
James J. Wilkerson, J.D., is the director of Staff Diversity and Equity and the Deputy Title IX Coordinator at IU Southeast.