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Empty Chair campaign at Rutgers brings to attention effects of interpersonal violence

 For the campaign, there are 20 purple folding chairs scattered across the New Brunswick campuses, each containing a sheet with fictional stories that are based on real experiences of survivors of interpersonal violence.  – Photo by Instagram

This week, purple folding chairs have been scattered across campuses in New Brunswick as part of the annual Empty Chair campaign hosted by the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA). 

“The campaign raises awareness and seeks to prevent incidents of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and other forms of interpersonal violence on campus,” said William Pauwels, coordinator of special programs for VPVA.

Each of the chairs contain a sheet with stories that are fictional, but based on real experiences from survivors of interpersonal violence. Since these issues affect people from a variety of backgrounds and identities, VPVA also made sure to present stories that reflect and represent all of these different experiences this year, Pauwels said.

The campaign used chairs as a symbol because they represent how a person’s absence in a room can be due to circumstances that others are not aware of. In total, approximately 20 chairs will be spread out among different departments and campuses. 

The chairs serve as a way to capture people’s attention, since they are strategically placed in spaces where chairs normally would not be found. The hope is that people passing by would ask why they are there in the first place, Pauwels said.

As for the color of the chairs, purple is a color that represents both the VPVA and domestic violence awareness. Pauwels said interpersonal violence, along with trauma, affects people in a variety of ways, which is an important fact for people to realize. 

“A lot of people might question why survivors are able to perform certain tasks in their daily life, while others may not. There is no perfect survivor, everyone responds differently to violence,” he said. 

Some effects of interpersonal violence include PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, hopelessness and anxiety, Pauwels said. These factors may be reasons why a survivor does not attend class, a club, an event or other activities, which impacts them throughout their college experience.

Regarding Rutgers, a campus climate survey in 2015 found that 24 percent of undergraduate women reported experiences of sexual assault even before coming to the University. Twenty percent of undergraduate women at Rutgers reported at least one incidence of unwanted sexual contact since coming to the University. 

“Whether you’re a survivor or a friend, there is a good chance you know someone, or someone within your surrounding has experienced a form of violence,” Pauwels said. “There is also a very high chance that a survivor will first communicate their experiences to their friends, which is why it is so important for students to be aware of these issues, along with the resources that they can provide to their friends."

The campaign also hopes to highlight that the impact of interpersonal violence that go beyond physical and mental effects, such as influencing everyday life and routines. 

“If you see someone missing within your class, groups or organizations, be mindful and aware that it isn’t out of the realm that interpersonal violence could have been a factor,” Pauwels said. “More importantly, I hope this campaign adds to the ongoing conversation that interpersonal violence is real and occurs at Rutgers University … we all need to be of the conversation and movement to end violence along with being active bystanders.”

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