STOCKBRIDGE — For Stockbridge Library Director Katie O'Neil, organizing a two-part discussion series on sexual assault turned out to be a highly personal mission.
During a preview of "Embrace Your Voice, Reclaim Your Power: Changing the Dialogue Surrounding Sexual Assault," O'Neil described the #MeToo Movement's impact on discussions about sexual violence and day-to-day harassment as a "cultural reckoning, and very overdue. This issue affects everyone. It is personal to me, absolutely. Unfortunately, as a woman, it's something I've had to deal with, a lot."
The series will be presented at the Stockbridge Library, 46 Main St., in a partnership with the Elizabeth Freeman Center, which was founded in 1974 as a 24-hour, Pittsfield-based resource as a safety net for victims of domestic and sexual violence in Berkshire County.
The first program, "Faces of Assault," is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday and features a panel discussion on "what sexual violence looks like, what forms does it take, who does it impact, how do we talk about it, and what we can do," O'Neil said.
Moderated by Jennifer Goewey, site supervisor at the Elizabeth Freeman Center's satellite office in Great Barrington, and Tess Lane, a counselor there, the panelists are trans/intersex activist Jahaira DeAlto; Dr. Kate Gallagher of the Austen Riggs Center; Stacy Malone, executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center and Lisa McCue, victim service coordinator for the Baystate Family Advocacy Center.
"I felt a desire to do something, this really important issue can be difficult to talk about and it's uncomfortable," O'Neil said. "The library is a safe place where we could do this in a compassionate, informative way. Because of the power dynamic for many years not being equal for men and women, it's also about making people in a power position, be they men or women, understand the other side's perspective — the culture that we live in hasn't wanted to talk about this, and that's contributing to the problem."
The second discussion, "Your Voice Has Power: Becoming Agents of Change to End Sexual Violence" is set for 6:30 p.m. April 24. Goewey and Lane will focus on consent, recovery for survivors, action steps toward empowerment, O'Neil said, and "how do we move forward, cultivate change and stand up if someone is being sexually harassed or approached in an inappropriate way."
"The term 'sexual violence' can mean anything from rape to harassment to an unwanted touch," she said. "There is a gradation and that's part of the conversation. How do we create a culture that's safe and contribute to a level of equality in that way."
With audience participation encouraged, discussion topics at the programs include understanding sexual violence and the forms it can take, from sexual harassment to domestic violence, O'Neil said, as well as the people it impacts — namely, everyone.
"I've been very fortunate that I haven't been a victim of sexual assault," she said, "but I know many people who have, and I've certainly dealt with harassment."
As a close-to-home example, she recounted a recent conversation with her fiance, who brought up a recent incident at a New Year's Eve party they attended "when a woman grabbed his butt. It's happened to me too but it's just so pervasive, I forgot about it until my fiance said, `I was groped and it made me feel horrible.' "
"It had never happened to him before, and I told him, `Oh my God, I can't even tell you how many times this has happened to me,' " O'Neil said. "That is unwanted and not consensual, I've been groped and it never registered, because unfortunately, when you're a woman in that dynamic, you kind of learn to deal with it, but it's not normal and not what should be happening."
She emphasized that the discussion series is aimed at men and women, including members of the LGBTQ community, "which experiences higher-percentage levels of domestic violence situations."
As she put it, "We shouldn't be engaging with each other in a way that makes somebody else feel bad, gross and violated. Why would someone feel it's OK to grab someone's butt? That's not OK, but it happens to a lot of people, so we need to talk about how we can contribute to a conversation where everyone's comfortable and safe."
Counselors will be available at both library sessions for anyone who might need them.
"We're connecting people with resources to give our community something it needs," said O'Neil, a 1997 graduate of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School who lives in Lee. "Because of everything that's been coming out recently, there's been a change in how we talk and think about it, and that's very positive."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.