Nancy Schwartzman is a filmmaker and mobile app developer focused on the intersection of youth culture, sexuality and technology. Nancy’s first film “The Line” examines the line of consent and advocates for healthy sexual boundaries through an exploration of her own experience of sexual assault. She is the CEO of Tech 4 Good, a human rights tech start-up, that created the Circle of 6 anti-violence mobile app. She is currently at work on a documentary about the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio.
We have known of Nancy’s work for a while and she participated in our six-part video series “Conducting Interviews With Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence” which compliments our written Guide on the same topic.
I spoke with Nancy via email about sexual assault on college campuses in the US, ethical methods to interview survivors of sexual and gender-based assault and her Circle of 6 app, which she calls a community building and harm reduction app.
Matisse: This is the first full school year since the April announcement of the US federal investigation into 55 college campuses for their responses to reports of sexual assault. What do you think will be different for students and school administrators this year?
Nancy: The White House launched the #ItsOnUs campaign in late September (we were there!) and is asking everyone to do something – to intervene, speak up, etc. They are also especially challenging men to not be bystanders, but to be the catalyst for change. So, the cultural messaging coming from the top is tremendous! This, coupled with a series of papers, guidelines and “best practices” for colleges to follow in order to be in compliance, should hopefully create more movement and preventative pro-active behaviors from colleges. However, until schools allocate funding to implement programs and tools to combat sexual assault, and make them mandatory, the services for students will be woefully underfunded, and students won’t take these programs seriously.
Your documentary “The Line” discusses justice and accountability for sexual assaults, but also takes a critical look at “rape culture,” which, to borrow a definition from Everyday Feminist, are: “cultural practices that excuse or otherwise tolerate sexual violence.” How can young people and college institutions help break this cycle of cultural practices?
Nancy: Schools need to mandate prevention education for all of their students from incoming first year students, all the way to the seniors. Coaches and sports teams must be involved. Prevention programming must go beyond one hour at the beginning of the year. There must be more transparency about sexual assault policies on campus, open justice procedures for victims and preventative measures both for education and, like the Circle of 6 app, designed specifically for students.
You’ve turned to mobile apps and other tech tools to prevent sexual violence. Tell us a bit about the Circle of 6 app.
Nancy: More than 1 in 4 college women are sexually assaulted. Men can be victims of sexual abuse, too. No matter how you identify on the sexuality and gender spectrum, whether you’re in a relationship, or hooking up for the first time, everyone has the right to say no, and the right to be treated with respect. So the Circle of 6 App is for everyone. The user creates a circle of six trusted friends and send them alerts if, for instance, you’re on a first date that starts to get uncomfortable. You find a way to excuse yourself and send a notice that asks one of in your circle to come meet you. There are also links to resources about healthy relationships and there is also a ‘panic button’ mode that can call two pre-programmed national hotlines or emergency numbers of your choice.
We’re very proud that the Circle of 6 won the “Apps Against Abuse” challenge from the White House and is being used by 200,000 people in 32 countries.
And you announced in April that you were customizing it for colleges. What is the latest on that process?
Nancy: We have rolled out Circle of 6 U with Williams College in Massachusetts (see recent NPR, Wired pieces) and will be rolling out UCLA and Hobart and William Smith Colleges shortly. The functionality is the same as in the standard app, but the resources and safety information are customized onto the app for each campus that we build for the school.
It’s going great! We are getting inquiries from across the country from schools wanting to bring it to campus -but again, it’s funding allocation that needs to shift. Campuses need to spend more on programs, tools and prevention – and not on lawsuits after the fact.
You collaborated with WITNESS on our video series “Conducting Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence“. Any piece of advice for filmmakers and activists working to document and prevent sexual assault on college campuses or in their communities at large?
- Seek out interview subjects who want to talk. Sometimes it takes a long time and a lot of work for people to be ready to discuss their abuse.
- If you as an interviewer or a journalist have your own story of sexual assault or are close with someone that has been sexual assaulted, consider sharing that information with your interviewee. This can help communicate that while you haven’t necessarily gone through exactly the same trauma, you have an understanding of sexual assault and sexual trauma.
- Remind the survivor before you begin that they are in control of the interview and that you can end the interview or pause at any time.
- Create a safe environment for your interviewee. For example, make sure there aren’t other people walking in and out of the room, make sure their perpetrator (or someone who knows their perpetrator) isn’t nearby, try to find a room with a door that closes so that you can speak privately.
- Do no harm, think about the power you wield with your camera, respect your subject.
Watch the “Conducting Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence” series for more tips from Nancy and other advocates. Download and read our written Guide.
Thanks to Sarah Kerr for her contributions to editing this interview.