Survivor Mentality

Emma Hart traverses the globe to stem the tide of gender-based violence.

May 16, 2023

Grant Segall

Emma Hart.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Emma Hart was raised by two mothers in rural Decatur, Indiana. Growing up, the other kids often reminded her “You can’t have two moms.”

Today, Hart credits the experience with inspiring her to pursue the cause of sexual justice. She formed Oberlin’s Survivors of Sexual Harm and Allies (SOSHA), a student-led organization that advocates for and empowers those who have experienced sexual violence.

Beginning in August, the graduating senior will approach the issue in a new way: by devoting a year to observing programs in South Africa, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand that create dialogues among boys in middle and high schools, raising awareness and curbing the incidence of sexual violence.

The opportunity was made possible by a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a highly competitive honor that enables recipients to pursue original, independent projects outside the U.S. and receive a $40,000 stipend and a year’s worth of college loan payments.

Named for the longtime head of IBM, Watson Fellowships have been awarded to 42 graduating college seniors from 20 states and four countries this year. Two of those fellows are from Oberlin: Hart and fellow senior Alli Roshni, who will work with patients, practitioners, researchers, and grassroots organizations to prevent and treat pediatric HIV and AIDS in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia.

Hart calls her project “Violence Intervention: Inviting Boys to the Conversation.” In a post on the Watson website, she writes: “Spaces that invite open conversation and encourage vulnerability in boys are key to reducing gender-based violence. Learning from organizations that empower boys to participate in these spaces, I will learn how different modes of violence-prevention stop harm before it happens.”

For Hart, the year ahead represents a global extension of the work she began at Oberlin. She will graduate with majors in dance and psychology, with a minor in law and society and an integrative concentration in education. For her senior project in dance, she directed and performed in a documentary film called Healing Bodies, which quotes survivors of sexual abuse. For an honors project in psychology, she presented research on “vicarious dissonance,” a sensation that happens when seeing close friends or family act contrary to their stated beliefs.

This semester, she took part in a seminar on the psychology of social conflict, taught by Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies Cindy Frantz. Hart says it helped her advocate more persuasively for justice for survivors of sexual violence. It’s a skill that has served her well in her work with SOSHA.

Numbering more than 100 student members, SOSHA supports survivors of sexual violence through confidential listening sessions facilitated by the Nord Center, a local mental-health and crisis intervention agency; through social events that support stress relief and healing; and through open forums.

Laurie McMillin seated with Emma Hart.
Hart learned to mentor student writers through Writing Center director Laurie McMillin (left). Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

SOSHA is credited with reviving Oberlin’s participation in Take Back the Night, an annual initiative on college campuses intended to empower survivors of sexual violence. It has also forged coalitions with athletic teams and other organizations aimed at preventive measures—initiatives similar to those Hart will experience overseas.

“Instead of creating division, we ended up having those dialogues,” she says. (Learn more about SOSHA on the Oberlin blogs.)

Emma Hart pole vaulting.
Hart in competition for the Oberlin track team. (photo by Thomas Hill '24)

Hart’s campus involvement has extended in numerous other directions as well: She served as a Peer Advising Leader to first-year students and worked with student writers as an associate in the Writing Center, where she works with the center’s director, Laurie McMillin, a professor of writing and communications. Hart also performed on silks and trapeze with the student-run OCircus and pole-vaulted for the Oberlin track team. She credits her coach, Ray Harris, for helping keep her balance on and off the field and emphasizing the importance of clear focus in order to compete safely.

“You have to have your head over your feet,” he’d say.

Down the road, Hart might pursue a law degree or a master’s in public policy. Either way, she will continue her pursuit of justice, and she hopes her Watson experience will help her determine the best way to do that.

“Advocacy work can be emotionally taxing,” she says. “I want to be sure that I’ll be able to sustain it.”

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