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  • EMPOWERING WOMEN

    Strong survivor

    SOU senior Mary Vest draws strength from her own experience to help others
  • As a survivor of sexual violence, Mary Vest has brought a powerful voice to her work at Southern Oregon's University's Women's Resource Center.
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  • As a survivor of sexual violence, Mary Vest has brought a powerful voice to her work at Southern Oregon's University's Women's Resource Center.
    When Vest began working at the center two years ago, she had told only her family about being sexually abused as a 12-year-old and about being raped as a freshman at SOU.
    "I've realized the importance of sharing our stories of survival," said Vest, 23, who graduates this week from SOU.
    Vest was taking an activist art class at SOU when she was inspired to create Hope Flags, decorative hangings similar to prayer flags but each with a message to survivors of sexual violence.
    Some of the flags displayed phrases such as "It's not your fault," while others shared statistics about sexual violence.
    The project introduced Vest, an international studies student, to the WRC, who helped her hang the flags inside the Stevenson Union in 2011.
    A year later she took on a role as stage manager for the WRC's annual production of "The Vagina Monologues," and last school year she was the production's director.
    "It was a really great experience," said Vest.
    Premiering off-Broadway in 1996, "The Vagina Monologues" has since been performed by groups around the world, usually in connection with V-Day, a global movement that raises money for groups fighting violence against women.
    The play was written by Eve Ensler, who also spearheaded the V-Day movement, which often involves productions of the play premiering on or near Valentine's Day.
    "It's empowering to know you're part of this worldwide movement," said Vest. "It's an important way to raise awareness in the community."
    This year Vest was a paid employee of the WRC as staff manager, a role she has excelled at, according to Molly Harris, coordinator for the WRC.
    "She is a leader and a role model to her peers," said Harris, who applauded Vest for being outspoken about her own story. "She has absolutely overcome odds in the sense that she was a survivor of sexual violence herself and has drawn from the insights of her own experience of recovery to be an outspoken advocate for the other survivors."
    This year, Vest helped administer the Ribbon Project, a campuswide survey to assess the prevalence of sexual assault among students.
    Vest used the more than 500 student responses to estimate campuswide data. The results show that at SOU, as many as 1 in 4 students have been sexually assaulted at least once, and three-quarters of students know someone who has experienced sexual violence.
    "It happens to so many people, and it's still something that's so taboo to talk about," said Vest. "It's just so widespread."
    Later this year, Vest helped organize a V-Day-movement "One Billion Rising" event, which helped raise awareness for the high incidence of sexual assault among women in the United States.
    She also facilitated a training of her peers at the WRC and SOU's Queer Resource Center and Multicultural Resource Center about dismantling rape culture.
    While she will probably watch graduation this Saturday, Vest said she isn't planning to participate.
    She does plan to attend the university's Lavender Graduation. The 11th annual event honors queer and allied graduates at SOU during a ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 12, on the lawn outside SOU's music building.
    After graduating, Vest said she would like to continue in work against sexual violence, preferably on a college campus.
    She said the field offers a combination of advocacy and dealing with the "dark part" of sexual violence, but also offers people the chance to become part of a movement that is still just beginning.
    "It's so prevalent and we still don't talk about it," said Vest. "A lot of people are part of the problem without ever realizing it."
    Vest said that because she was a victim herself, she'll never know whether she would have otherwise been so passionate about preventing sexual violence.
    "I will never know if I would care as much about this if I wasn't a survivor," she said. "It gives me a lot of insight because I am. All of the work I do helps me in so many ways as well."
    Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.
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