On April 14, 2014, my Psi Chi chapter at Kent State University (OH) hosted U-Night to End Stigma, an inclusive event that brought together researchers, advocates, and students to share their insight and experience in the areas of mental illnesses/differences, cognitive and physical disabilities/differences, and sexuality and gender roles. As president, I really wanted our chapter to have an impact beyond philanthropy. I wanted to provoke thought, promote acceptance, and fight to reduce the stigmas that prevent us from having effective dialogues about various social and systemic mechanisms of oppression. I wanted us to help create a culture where differences are embraced and talked about instead of shamed and misunderstood.
In the beginning of the 2013 fall semester, I brought my vision to the rest of Psi Chi: "How neat would it be to have an individual speak about their experience with physical disability just minutes after someone else has spoken about sexuality?” The hope in hosting such a diverse event was to encourage the realization of commonality among guests and speakers when it comes to the experience of being marginalized in the grander sense, whether it is due to skin color, sexuality, ability, or having differences in perceptions or emotional sensitivities.
I have to admit that the concept for this event was extremely ambitious, but my fellow officers doled out their support as we all held our breath. We decided to get right to work by setting up a table in the Department of Psychology where we sold Psi Chi T-shirts and promoted the event. While doing so, we asked students to write pledges on foam hearts stating ways they will help to end stigma, with the intent to display these pledges at the event. In asking for these pledges, we had to explain the event and what stigma is. It was a great opportunity to inspire conversation around this huge topic and to educate students who might be unaware of various mechanisms of stigma. In this respect, we felt as though we were already having an impact because the event was taking place every single day we were in the hall. Our presence and dialogue was shifting the culture, even if slightly. We were making it cool to be accepting and open-minded.
Around this time, I began to search for speakers. During the summer of 2013, I had participated in a summer research program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. While there, I met Dr. Morton Gernsbacher and was overwhelmed with her intellect and advocacy for those with disabilities and differences. I decided to send her an e-mail inviting her to speak at the U-Night to End Stigma event, though I knew it was a long-shot given her stature and busy schedule. To my surprise, however, she responded with an enthusiastic "yes!” Dr. Gernsbacher expressed that she would be more than happy to speak without a fee as long as we were able to find funding for transportation and lodging. I immediately drafted a proposal for financial support and sent it to our Department Chair, Dr. Maria Zaragoza, who then took the proposal to the faculty, where it was approved. I was ecstatic with the solidification of Dr. Gernsbacher’s attendance.
After a few weeks of promoting the event in the hallway, an instructor from the Department of Sociology, Stephen Keto, stopped by our table and surprised us with a bundle of papers outlining the protocol to propose for university funding through the Undergraduate Student Government (USG). USG was not a channel we had previously considered. With just a few weeks left of the semester, I focused on navigating the various networks at place. It was a stressful process, but it became easier once I connected with a university liaison, Katie Goldring. Katie sympathized with my frustration and helped to simplify the process. However, she was concerned that the event would not appeal to many students and that our attendance numbers would be low. I listened to Katie’s concerns and incorporated her feedback into our application for funding. We did not have a precedent to point to in order to gain the confidence of others. We had to believe in the purpose and the appeal of the event with complete confidence. I submitted all of the necessary paperwork during the last week of the fall semester with fingers tightly crossed.
In the meantime, Lee Moore, our university’s rabbi, mentioned the relevance of the Icarus Project and its cofounder, Sascha Altman DuBrul. The Icarus Project is a support group for individuals who have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness or difference. What makes the Icarus Project unique is the fact that they speak of traditional mental illnesses as not being entirely negative in nature. At the core of the Icarus Project is the idea of supporting individuals, who often interact with stigmatic barriers when interfacing with more traditional supportive services, in an accepting and nonjudgmental fashion. After contacting Sascha, he agreed to speak at our event.
Once the winter semester started, I sent an e-mail to inquire about the date of our defense for USG funding only to discover that it was scheduled for the very next day! I ran to our advisor, Dr. Jocelyn Folk, to explain the situation; she offered her full support and advice. I stayed up late crafting a document that stated the purpose of the event, the impact that it would have on campus, the educational value, our plan for promotion, the venue, and the feasibility of the concept. In order to substantiate their importance, I included biographies and the curriculum vitae of our two keynote speakers, Dr. Gernsbacher and Sascha DuBrul. Without hesitation, Dr. Folk cleared her schedule for the time of the USG meeting and accompanied me in order to show the USG that we had the support of a faculty member.
When Dr. Folk and I arrived in the governance chambers, I was consumed with anxiety. I feared that we would be dismissed simply because there was skepticism over our ambitious vision, but Dr. Folk helped me to think about the type of questions they might ask. I practiced explaining the significance of the event, how we were going to recruit the rest of our speakers, how we were going to promote, and attempted to think about minute details in order to demonstrate that our organization had thought about this event thoroughly. Dr. Folk was a huge support. She calmed my nerves and reassured me that our project was worth the funding and that everything would work out no matter what. However, as we waited for the meeting to begin, the USG advisor informed us that some members of the government were not present so the defense would need to be postponed for the following week. It was anticlimactic to say the least!
I could not attend the following week, but a fellow member of Psi Chi, Alyssa Pisanelli, was able to miss her class to represent our organization at the defense. We went over her speech and the types of questions that might be asked. I was nervous about not being there for the entire duration of the defense while I tried to listen to a lecture on human evolution. When my class ended, I received a text from Alyssa letting me know that she needed to speak with me. The text did not have any exclamation marks or smiley faces. My heart sank. We met in front of the psychology main office. Alyssa had a sullen expression, and I would be amused to know the look I was displaying. She pulled out a folder, turned to me, and said "we got the funding!” I was overwhelmed with joy. We hugged, and I proceeded to tell everyone I knew that we had received the full amount of funding we requested, which was approximately $4,000.
After this huge accomplishment, we decorated our Psi Chi bulletin board. We created a divided tree where half of the tree represented stigma and the other half was a contrast to stigma. On the stigma side, we had brown leaves falling from the tree that displayed various stigmatic phrases such as hobo. On the other side, we had green leaves where students wrote messages of inspiration such as "I believe my differences are the reason for my success.” We brainstormed to imagine a powerful image for our flyers and signs. We came up with the phrase, "Different Lenses, One Vision,” where various stigmatized groups made up a peace sign. I e-mailed a graphic designer I knew, Mary Ann Conrad, and asked her to take our concept and make it amazing. She delivered an image that was beyond our imagination. With the image, we got T-shirts and posters printed. Mary Ann also designed our program into an anthology to display phrases and stories from students both at Kent State and elsewhere.
Courtney Thaman, our treasurer, was an officer for the organization To Write Love on Her Arms, which is a support and empowerment network for individuals who have experienced various mental health disturbances such as depression and suicidal ideation. Courtney networked across the organization to find several of our student speakers. We also contacted many local organizations within the community and every relevant student organization, and asked them to help promote and to consider hosting a table at the event. Further, we garnered the support of the psychology faculty, where several professors and instructors offered extra credit to their students for attending the event. We sent e-mails to department chairs, deans, and secretaries of all university departments, and e-mailed several dozen professors who were teaching relevant courses and were able to pull in more student attendees for extra credit.
On April 14, 2014, we hosted U-Night to End Stigma. All of our speakers were relatable, open, and empowering. The audience was engaged and the atmosphere embodied the concept of acceptance. We started with our student speakers, who focused on sexuality, gender roles, addiction to both substances and self-harm, psychosis, and eating disorders. Sascha DuBrul spoke next about the social and political factors that influence our perceptions of mental illness and mental health care. We then had a professor speak about dance and disability, a dance performance to the music of "She Keeps Me Warm,” and a talk by Marly Saade (Ohio State University) regarding her experience with physical disability. Dr. Gernsbacher closed the event by speaking about the concept of diverse brains, the ways our biases get in the way of psychological research, and the importance of advocating for supportive and accepting services for those who function differently within the world.
Approximately 700 students and community members attended! Students who came for just an hour to receive extra credit ended up staying for the entire four hours. At moments, the event was overwhelming and extremely scary, but it was also one of the proudest moments of my life and was unquestionably the greatest accomplishment of our Psi Chi chapter. You can view a 13-minute film highlighting pieces of the event at http://youtu.be/YykoBOuwd1g. It is our hope that this becomes to be an annual event at Kent State and that other Psi Chi chapters may find inspiration in our experiences. I am more than happy to answer questions related to the planning of this event at firstname.lastname@example.org.