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Speaking of Feminism: Andrea Pino

by Rachel F. Seidman

This interview was excerpted from “Speaking of Feminism: Today’s Activists on the Past, Present, and Future of the U.S. Women’s Movement” (UNC Press, 2019).

Andrea Pino and Annie Clark both attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a prestigious public university with a beautiful campus of tree-lined quads and rhododendrons that burst into pink and white blooms in early spring. Both survivors of sexual assault, they became famous when they rocked the bucolic academic world with their complaint to the federal Department of Education, arguing that UNC was not complying with Title IX because no student could equally access education if she did not feel safe from sexual violence. They and other students on campuses around the country worked together to demonstrate how campus rapes should be seen not as isolated crime stories but as the result of a culture of violence and misogyny and to show that universities were not taking the issue seriously enough. They cofounded End Rape on Campus, a direct-service organization through which they support victims and help them learn how to become activists. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand declared that they had inspired her to take up the issue of campus sexual assault, and they helped her write a bill, which she introduced to Congress. Their work was highlighted in a dramatic documentary, The Hunting Ground, which was released at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

In December 2015, Pino and Clark were living in a cozy house in Washington, D.C. The front porch prominently displayed a UNC banner, and I met them and their friendly dog in their small living room that was dominated by a Christmas tree. They had been living and working intensely together for three years by that point and had recently moved to D.C. from the West Coast in order to be closer to the legal and political networks in which they were now moving.

Pino’s story is full of conflict, pain, and exhaustion as well as growing confidence, guarded optimism, and a coming to terms with her role in the world. The granddaughter of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in a tough neighborhood in Little Havana, Miami. Her father started a business but lost it in the crash of 2008. Until she transferred to a charter high school, her academic ambition was frowned upon and discouraged by her peers and unsupported or simply not understood by the adults around her. Driven to succeed, she made her way to UNC-which she had fallen in love with on a campus visit- through her own hard work, supported by scholarships and money she had saved by doing graphic design, something she taught herself in eighth grade.

Despite being valedictorian in high school and always succeeding in her leadership activities, adjusting to UNC as a first-generation Latina student was hard for Pino. She had a difficult time finding resources or meeting peers who could help her adjust to college life. After a troubling experience where she was pressured into drinking and then left behind at a party, Pino became cautious of her peers. Her confidence plummeted even further, and she began to experience severe anxiety.

When she returned to school for her second year, though, Pino started getting involved in student government, joined a program called Women Engaged in Learning and Leadership, took a course on violence prevention, and got involved with Project Dinah, an activist group on campus focused on sexual violence.

None of that protected her from a sexual assault. But together with her decision to reach out to Annie Clark, an activist who had graduated the year before, her training helped her see her own experience in a much broader context and planted the seeds for her approach to making change.

Andrea Pino (left) and Annie Clark on the campus of the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, on August 15, 2013. Jonathan Alcorn/Tribune News Service via Getty Images.

Andrea Pino: In Her Own Words

My grandparents are from a small town in a port area of Cuba called Gibara. They came over fifty years ago seeking employment opportunities. My grandfather, for a living, he painted warships. He raised us to be Democrats, meaning he’s always believed that the government should be there for the people. He always instilled in me the desire to be politically active and to call out things that seemed to be unequal and unjust. He’s definitely where I got most of my political drive from. Since growing up, he used to tell me, “Nunca, nunca, nunca pares de luchar.” You never, never, never give up. He said despite what you might have to deal with, always remember that you can do what you set your mind to do.

‘Nunca, nunca, nunca pares de luchar.’ You never, never, never give up.

My schedule throughout most [of] high school was I would wake up at four in the morning; I would study for the SAT; I would do research on a [college]; I would brush up on my notes for my classes. I would go to school at six, start school at seven thirty, and be in school all the way up until three o’clock. At three o’clock, I would take a bus or walk to the local community college to make my dual enrollment class—that’s how I made up for not having access to AP classes. My day did not end until seven o’clock. That’s when I went home and did my homework. That’s because, in a way, to be able to compete in the marathon that is college admissions when you are a person of color, you have to make up for the fact that you don’t have shoes. That’s how I felt for a very long time. It wasn’t about keeping up with people; it was the fact that you don’t have shoes throughout most of the race. It was a commitment. I graduated high school top of my class.

It was hard to adjust as a first-generation Latina student at UNC. I felt lost. You have some people who are willing to help you, but you’re very much on your own. That’s very much what life is like when you have to navigate college as a first-generation student and as a student of color. There’s nobody helping you out. I went from a valedictorian to feeling like I had to survive in my classes. It was difficult to talk about. It was something that my parents noticed when I went home for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t really bursting with happiness like they had left me in August.

[In fall semester of sophomore year] I had taken a violence prevention class, Women’s Studies 298. I began caring about sexual assault and gender-based problems. I became a peer educator for a bystander intervention program. I thought I knew everything about sexual violence prevention, the causes and what it looks like. I was training people. I was an advisor and educator. I was training women and men about how to notice the signs, how to be safe, and how to get resources. I guess in many ways I felt that people like me couldn’t get sexually assaulted. I had a scary incident my first year, and after that I didn’t go out to parties. I didn’t get wasted. I didn’t do these things because I realized that I really wasn’t into the idea of blacking out. One experience is enough for me.

I had a friend, and she invited me to a party. It was right around spring break. I went to this party with her. I ended up being sexually assaulted. It happened to me at a party in which I knew the hosts; I knew someone going in there. They were also student leaders. They were people who should have seen the signs, who should have known that this was going on. In many ways, I thought for a long time that I must have put myself in a certain place. I must have not seen the signs. I must have been vulnerable in some way. I must have invited it in some way even though I was wearing black jeans and boots. I was very much in winter gear. It was March, after all.

I didn’t know what happened. I remember waking up [in my bed] that morning, the morning after, in a pool of blood. I grew up in Little Havana. There were a couple of people around me who were santeros.1 My grandfather used to always joke [that] if there was ever a dead animal in front of your house, then it must mean somebody was after you. He said that the worst thing that could happen is if someone left a goat head dripping in blood. I thought, “I guess this is what one of the severed goat heads would look like.” I remember not being able to understand what had happened. Who was there that night? Why was I in so much pain? Why did I have bruising and this amount of blood? I did not stop bleeding for a few days.

I didn’t report anybody. I didn’t go through the adjudication process. I didn’t go to the police. I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t do anything that a good victim is supposed to do. I felt very guilty. For a very long time I felt, “How could a person like me speak about this issue if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do?”

How could a person like me speak about this issue if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do?

Later I saw these silver boxes that are fixed to the wall in the entrance of the women’s restroom in the student union. It had this little sticker that said, “If you’ve been sexually assaulted or if you’re a victim of interpersonal violence, consider anonymously reporting.” I thought, “Huh.” I remember getting the paper and taking it into the handicapped restroom. I was sitting on the toilet, not even going to the bathroom, sitting on the toilet and looking at it and reading it. I remember pulling out a pen, and I started to cry and I filled it out. I remember looking at the boxes and not really knowing what counted as rape. What was assault? What did that mean?

I Googled. What is this box? Who created this? Why didn’t I know about this before? I read the article that was interviewing a then senior named Annie Clark, who had created these boxes for students. I ended up emailing her and saying, “You don’t know me, but we have a couple of common friends, and I wanted to talk to you about the boxes that you put in the union.” She said the reason she did that was because she had a bad experience. She wanted to give a space to people that might not know their attacker and might not feel safe coming forward or might not know how to articulate their experience. She wanted to give those survivors the space to be able to come forward.

I was appointed to the Title IX coordinator search committee; it happened to be that the student body president had read that I was interested in women’s issues. He said, “I’m going to appoint you to this committee. It’s somewhat important but I don’t know what it’s about.” I said, “Title IX, interesting.” I thought, “What does sexual assault have to do with Title IX? I’m very confused.” It was then that I stumbled upon the “Dear Colleague” letter which was released by the Department of Education in 2011.2 It was pretty recent. It was in reading it that I learned that universities are responsible for adjudicating sexual assault. I thought, “Interesting. I’ve never heard of this.”

It made me think a lot about, “What were we doing? How did I not know about this? How did I not know that I had a right to report to the university, that I had a process independent of the police?” Then I Skyped Annie. I remember asking her, “Have you heard about Title IX and its connection to sexual assault? Did you know that UNC adjudicates sexual assault in the Honor Court?” She said, “Yes. I’ve been to some of the hearings.” I said, “This is insane and it’s illegal.” She said, “Yes. I had friends who lived through the process and nobody was found responsible.” I said, “I don’t think anybody’s been found responsible. Ever.”

Annie was the first person I told my full story to. She’s the person who said, “You were raped.” That for me was a transformative point. In accepting it and talking about it for the first time, I could come to terms with what happened and be able to translate that into doing something about it. I realize that I was like the majority of survivors: the ones who never come forward; the ones who don’t really know what to do; the ones who don’t think their incident is terrible enough to come forward. I realized that I wasn’t going to seek any justice for myself. What I could do was I could influence how students were educated about this in the future. I could do something directly by helping hire the administrator who would change this policy.

Andrea Pino at a news conference, the University of North Carolina, January 30, 2013. Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP.

I began taking more political science classes and I enrolled in Feminist Political Theory. We were assigned most of Catharine MacKinnon’s readings and her work. I read that she had written a legal brief arguing that sexual harassment was a violation of Title IX. I thought, “Interesting. Everything is coming full circle. My classwork is coming full circle. What I’m doing in this committee is coming full circle.”

When I read MacKinnon’s work and I learned about the case she wrote that brief for, Alexander v. Yale, I began to realize that the arguments the plaintiffs brought forth against Yale in 1979 were similar to the ones survivors at UNC were arguing. I met dozens of other survivors at UNC and had never heard of a single case in which an accused assailant had been found responsible, much less expelled. That was the final straw for me. Then I realized that we could no longer work within the system. That was a very difficult decision. I loved my school. Since I got to Carolina I’ve worn the school’s seal around my neck; getting into Carolina is still one of the happiest moments of my life. It was something that I worked so hard for. Everything about the Carolina Way and about the institution’s history is something that is so integral to my identity.3 I realized if I loved my school, I had to fight to change it. I never wanted to shame UNC. I never wanted UNC to get in trouble. I simply wanted things to change. It was when I was told the policy was set in stone, that this is how it had been for decades and that nothing was going to change, I realized that something had to change.

I realized if I loved my school, I had to fight to change it.

[From MacKinnon] I learned that you don’t have to have an attorney to use Title IX. The cool thing about filing a federal complaint is that you simply write your complaint directly to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. That’s it. It’s essentially as close to filing a lawsuit as you can without passing the bar. You could be a twenty-year-old and take on a 200-year-old university without legal help. That’s what we decided to do. We weren’t going to wait until we found an attorney who would take our case pro bono. We didn’t have the time for it.

Annie and I decided to look up as much as we could around the case law of Title IX that happened until then, about the cases of the Jane Does and John Does that were not being covered. We were able to put together this framework arguing that sexual assault was a violation of Title IX because no student can feel safe if they are afraid of the fear of sexual assault. That’s not to say that we were pioneers; this had been argued before. What made us a little different was that we were among the first students who filed a complaint publicly, not anonymously, and without legal representation.

We wrote a letter to [the student newspaper] the Daily Tar Heel and said that I, Andrea Pino, and Annie Clark were going to file a federal complaint in January of 2013. Everyone laughed at us. I had meetings with a couple of the higher administrators. They were promising that they were going to take it seriously and they were going to change their policy. I said, “I’m not confident enough that you are going to change anything.” We filed our complaint in January of 2013. We did so with a press release that said that UNC is one of many schools that are struggling with this. At the time, we did not know this was going to become the movement that it did.

It wasn’t so long after that we began hearing from other survivors. It was repeated across dozens of campuses time and time again. We realized that this was going to be way bigger than we ever imagined. We started talking with these survivors, and they reached out to us through Twitter, through Facebook, through LinkedIn even, wanting to do what we did. We developed this model of being able to teach survivors how to file complaints.

This is one of the times when I began to read more refined research on media framing in particular. I had a theory that a movement would happen if we could frame sexual assault as being thematic, not episodic. To do that, you would have to create a climate in which survivors felt safe coming forward publicly, using their names instead of being Jane Does. We know the media aren’t trained to connect a story thematically, because they don’t cover crime as being thematic. What if we could force them to do so? With sexual assault, it’s often seen as the one case of which a girl possibly put herself in a certain place that made it happen. Whereas if you were to see thematic coverage, the media would have a better grasp that women are targeted on campus. It’s not that the girl put herself in a bad place; it’s a bigger problem beyond that. It’s a culture of harassment and a culture of violence that is happening on every college campus.

The way we were going to solve this is, if the media were not going to cover our stories collectively, then we were going to force them to do so. We started connecting survivors across the country. We all did a public press conference and filed together. That became really powerful to get the media to cover it that way.

In March of 2013, I heard from [reporter] Richard Pérez-Peña. He reached out to me and said, “I’ve been following your social media and there seems to be a movement that’s building.” His article, which at the time I did not realize was going to be as big as it was, became one of the first thematic news stories around campus sexual violence. It was on the front page of the New York Times website when I was in my Women’s Studies 101 class that semester. I remember clutching at my chest and thinking, “Oh my God, I’m on the front page of the New York Times.” It was a photo of me and Annie.

It was on the front page of the New York Times website when I was in my Women’s Studies 101 class that semester.

Since then, it’s only gotten more and more and more coverage. It went from the New York Times to be covered by Time, to be covered by MSNBC, and to be covered by CNN. It’s something that completely exploded after that. So did the calls from survivors who were trying to get ahold of us.

My residence hall had been broken into on Easter Sunday [2013]. I began feeling very unsafe at Carolina. They had spray-painted on my bulletin boards with phallic symbols; they left a knife behind; and there were fingerprints across the hall from me. I decided I was going to take some time off. I moved out to Oregon to work with Annie. It was then that Annie and I, together with Alexandra [Brodsky], a former Yale student that filed a Title IX complaint in 2011, and Dana [Bolger], an Amherst student activist, began talking about formalizing and creating somewhat of a network. Alexandra and Dana ended up formalizing an awareness campaign called Know Your IX. Annie and I went on to create an organization called End Rape on Campus [EROC]. They are two different organizations that we created around the same time. Know Your IX was focused on more of a campaign educational approach informing students of their rights. EROC is a direct-service organization. We support survivors in finding counsel, in finding mental health care, and predominantly supporting them in taking action. That’s what most of our work comes from.

One of the things that is most frustrating to me now is that while there seems to be a lot of interest in this issue, there doesn’t seem to be a pipeline for funding it. My income in 2013 was $4,000 for the entire year. That was when Kirby [Dick] and Amy [Ziering] reached out to us and said, “Would you like to move forward with the work on this documentary [The Hunting Ground]?” Of course, to a theorist like me who works on media framing, what an awesome opportunity to create a documentary. Talk about perfect thematic framing, creating a documentary that can be used as a tool to propel the idea of the thematic problem of campus sexual assault. Of course I said yes and packed my bags for Los Angeles.

The PTSD had completely taken over my life. It wasn’t just my assault; it was more the vicarious trauma of listening to some of these survivors. I didn’t have money for therapy. Later, that fall, I got really sick—it turns out it was a severe staph infection. I was given prednisone to help with the inflammation that it was causing; I ended up having medical poisoning because of it. I became severely suicidal for about twenty-four hours. I ended up being taken to the psychiatric ward. Even though I wasn’t admitted, being in the hospital even for a short time, I realized that I had given up everything to [that] point. Because of all this work, I did not have a body that was working for me anymore. That moment in the psychiatric ward completely changed how I was an activist thereafter. I was working twenty-four hours a day, if not with the film, it was with survivors. I had given up everything: my education, my life, and my body. It was some of the hardest times of my life.

These are things you don’t really see in The Hunting Ground. What you don’t really see in all the coverage about me is that I gave up everything to become an activist and to dedicate my life to this issue. The one thing that I gave up that really haunts me is that I gave up my education. When I returned to Carolina in January of 2014, I was told I wasn’t going to graduate because I did not have the needed courses that I thought I had. It was three intro-level classes; it wasn’t even a whole semester’s worth. It was three classes that I had forgotten to take but I couldn’t take when I was gone.

At the same time, when I was taking my finals, Annie and I decided to go to D.C. because we had a meeting with the White House. We decided to walk to the Capitol and then walk to the Russell Building. We stumbled onto Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand’s office. Senator Gillibrand had this very nice receptionist named Bo, and we said we’d like to meet with someone to talk about sexual assault. Bo looked at us in a way like, “Girl, that’s not how it works.” [Laughter.]

Senator Gillibrand had this very nice receptionist named Bo, and we said we’d like to meet with someone to talk about sexual assault. Bo looked at us in a way like, “Girl, that’s not how it works.”

Then out came Brooke Jamison, who is the legislative director, and Alyson Kelly, the legislative aide at the time. They’re looking at us like, “You’re clearly in college. You’re clearly a student. So what are you two talking about?” We told them how we were two activists, how I had given up everything to work on this issue and my life had really changed. Our schools weren’t paying attention. You could tell they were [like], “Oh my God.” We talked for forty-five minutes. We were in the middle of the hallway in the Russell Building surrounded by marble columns.

Anna (center, a victim of a campus sexual assault who declined to provide her last name) hugs Andrea Pino, also a victim, during a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to introduce legislation that aims to curb sexual assaults at universities, July 30, 2014. Also appearing are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY (left), Anna’s mother Susan, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO. Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images.

A few days later, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand gave a public speech and said, “I’m taking on campus sexual assault.” She said, “These two young women came into my office a few days ago and they told me what was going on. I’m taking on this issue.” Since then, we worked with her on writing a bill that she introduced to Congress. I often say that the year of my senior finals, I was in Washington talking to a senator and talking to the White House.

I didn’t officially graduate, but I walked so that my family could be there. After the 2014 commencement, Annie and I took the car and we drove across the country and visited survivors. We went to seventeen different states and went to all these incredible natural landmarks. In a sense it was this cool cross-country college road trip. It was the first time that I began realizing that what we were doing was remarkable and it was successful. Although nobody saw it that way at first. Nobody saw that what we did would be anything but two women complaining about their sad experiences. It was seen as something that was just for attention. It wasn’t seen as something that was radical. It was something about Kirsten Gillibrand and other activists—the Jaclyn Friedmans, the Emily Mays, the people we’ve met throughout our work—and kind of being in the same circles, we realized that we were activists, that we were part of this movement, that we were part of history. I think often about that Women’s Studies 101 class and the fact that I was in that class when we were on the front page of the New York Times. A few months later, students who were taking that class messaged me and said, “I saw you during my lecture today, you’re in the PowerPoint slide. We’re learning about you. You’re part of the curriculum.”

A few months later, students who were taking that class messaged me and said, “I saw you during my lecture today, you’re in the PowerPoint slide. We’re learning about you. You’re part of the curriculum.”

This has happened so fast. I will be twenty-four in a few weeks, and this all started when I was twenty. It hasn’t been that long since my assault. My life has completely changed. I never thought I’d be meeting all these incredible activists, speaking in the Senate, going to the White House on a regular basis, living in D.C., and running a nonprofit before I turn twenty-five without a college degree. One thing I thought that would happen: I would definitely have a BA. I have everything else. It’s been hard. It’s been hard to come to terms with the fact that my family isn’t sure how to feel about what I am doing. My abuelos don’t know I was sexually assaulted. I think, in many ways, I can’t really articulate what happened to me in Spanish even though I’m fluent. There are certain things I don’t have the words for to describe what happened. There’s something about your mother tongue that makes things more real, that makes things more vivid. I feel like if I say that it happened in Spanish, I have to bleed all over again, in a way. Maybe, because they don’t know what happened, they don’t see all this as success? I don’t blame them. They worked so hard for me to get my degree, and I don’t have it.4

People have heard my story; they’ve seen the film. They’ve read what I’ve written. They’ve told me that “it’s because of reading your story that I came forward.” I often think about politics this way. It doesn’t mean that I have to work with people individually to empower people. For me, it’s balancing these options and thinking, “How much of a normal life will I have?” At the rate that I’m going, I’m never going to have a normal life, which is totally fine.

From Speaking of Feminism: Today’s Activists on the Past, Present, and Future of the U.S. Women’s Movement by Rachel F. Seidman. Copyright © 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Rachel F. Seidman is director of the Southern Oral History Program in the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.NOTES

  1. Practitioners of Santeria, a Caribbean
  2. The Office for Civil Rights sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and uni- versities asserting that sexual harassment and assault “interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from ” They reminded educators that Title IX prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex and that sexual harassment of students, including acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX., accessed 2/07/2019.
  3. The Carolina Way is a phrase coined by famous former basketball coach Dean Smith to describe a way of playing basketball that emphasized sportsmanship and team togetherness. Over the years, it came to be associated by Carolina alumni with their school more broadly, and although interpreted differently by different people, it generally means doing things “right” with a focus on community and generosity.
  4. Pino received her degree from UNC in 2017.
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