Professor Carolyn Stauffer is the featured guest of this week’s episode of Peacebuilder podcast. Stauffer speaks with host Patience Kamau MA ’17 about her work in the fields of sexual harm and trauma.
Before returning to her alma mater as a professor, Stauffer spent 16 years in Southern Africa. In the podcast, she recounts working at a rape crisis center in the mid-1990s, where she saw a “hierarchy of identities” among the survivors of sexual assault she worked with.
Race “was the primary sort of frame of identity that was given the most recognition … after race then class became an issue,” Stauffer explained, especially among those from mixed race communities. In contrast, gender-based issues weren’t much considered in the national discourse on oppression, all while “Johannesburg was considered the rape capital of the world.”
When Stauffer joined the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) faculty in 2010, she thought seriously and prayed about how to serve those experiencing intimate partner violence and gender-based violence in the Shenandoah Valley. She started the Silent Violence Project, in which Stauffer and a team (which included Center for Justice and Peacebuilding students) worked with women who were homeless, undocumented, or in the Beachy Amish communities.
“What were the unique risks that they faced based on their identity?” Stauffer asked. “What were the resistance strategies that they used to push back against abusers … what were their resilience strategies?”
At the time, Stauffer was co-director of EMU’s MS in biomedicine program. She wanted to ensure that the future healthcare providers under her tutelage would be sensitized to sexual harm survivors, so she held a symposium – with a cadre of conservative Mennonite survivors teaching her students. Many of the survivors hadn’t completed the eighth grade.
“I flipped the script and basically positioned them as the experts to train my biomedicine students sexual harm and trauma. And so it was this total change of power dynamics,” Stauffer explained.
Despite her vast expertise in this field, Stauffer still welcomes learning from others. She recalls how, after one symposium, someone asked her about the intersection between sexual violence and neurodiversity – for example, a survivor who may have ADHD or autism.
“We have to think beyond just one particular sort of static definition of who that survivor or who that harm doer is. I think that’s part of taking the field forward, is including an understanding of the intersection of identity and sexual harm.”