The Clothesline Project uses art for domestic violence awareness

The Clothesline Project began in 1990 as a response to the statistic that “58,000 soldiers died in the Vietnam war. During that same period of time, 51,000 women were killed mostly by men who supposedly loved them.” Co-founder and visual artist Rachel Carey-Harper came up with the idea of decorating shirts with messages related to violence against women and hanging them on a clothesline. Since then, the movement has expanded to raise awareness for all victims of intimate violence.

The Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) honored the project for Sexual Assault Awareness Month by inviting students and staff to decorate t-shirts and hang them in the Grove around the Arch. Groups affiliated with Ramapo and the Bergen County area tabled.

As OVP coordinator, Marie-Danielle Attis was a driving force behind the event. Ramapo began hosting an annual Clothesline Project in 2018, shortly after she arrived, and it ran virtually through the pandemic. Whether an event happens in-person or behind a screen, Attis aims to make each one a place of empowerment. “I’m a survivor. I’m a thriver. I believe in folks’ resilience and I try to use that space to get folks to feel resilient.”

Attendees could choose to add their names to their shirts or to leave their artwork anonymous. Photo by Danielle Bongiovanni

Attis was proud of the shirts on display. “It represents that resilience, but it also represents the spectrum of where a victim, a survivor, an ally is in their journey to activism or to a space of wellness.” 

About 50 pre-decorated shirts were displayed by healingSPACE YWCA. Community Outreach & Education Supervisor Nutcha Elianor claimed the organization has collected about 2,500 in total from Clothesline Project events over the years.

Elianor has promoted prevention education across the country in a myriad of communities, especially at colleges. “Because of teen dating violence and intimate partner violence, which is very prevalent on college campuses… we try to educate the students about sexual violence and the dangers and the red flags.”

College students who have not been in relationships before are especially vulnerable to abuse due to inexperience with recognizing red flags.

“I think the college population is one of the most at-risk groups because young adults are exploring relationships,” said Laura Melendez, a community educator and licensed clinician for Alternatives to Domestic Violence (ADV). “There’s a lot of confusion out there about what is healthy and normal.”

ADV representatives like Laura Melendez (middle) can be reached via their 24/7 hotline, (201) 336-7575. Photo by Danielle Bongiovanni

Melendez wants Ramapo students to know that they, like all Bergen County residents, are eligible for free services ranging from legal advocacy to ADV’s batterer intervention program. If someone is discouraged from leaving their abuser due to obstacles such as financial insecurity, ADV is there to help.

Abusive relationships are enabled by an uneven power dynamic. “[Abuse] happens because someone has managed to weaponize social location, access to resources, access to information,” Melendez said.

Abuse is not always perpetrated by a man against a woman. Patriarchal norms may make a man feel ashamed to acknowledge he is being abused. A person who has citizenship may threaten an undocumented partner with deportation. In an LGBTQ+ relationship, one partner may weaponize the fact that the other has not come out yet.

The Women’s Center & LGBTQ+ Services hosted a table to raise awareness of abuse within LGBTQ+ relationships. Coordinator Alex Woods said, “It’s really important that we advocate for those groups because a lot of the time they are left out of the conversation.”

The table also invited attendees to decorate paper cutouts of jeans to promote Denim Day, a campaign intended to combat victim-blaming. On April 26, students and staff are invited to wear denim in solidarity with survivors who have been accused of enabling their sexual assault.

Events like the Clothesline Project and Denim Day encourage students who are survivors or currently trapped in abusive situations to contact organizations like ADV and healingSPACE.

At Ramapo, OVP offers services such as peer-to-peer counseling. Student staff are designated reporters who are obligated to notify public safety of any threats of harm, but Attis is not.

“I do not have to report to anyone. I can give you resources to help you get out of the relationship if you’re ready to, or we can have a conversation about how to make your relationship manageable until you get out,” Attis said.

Featured photo by Danielle Bongiovanni