REES and CMU, with Mary Lobson
Earlier this fall, DOXA co-editor Mike Thiessen sat down with Mary Lobson, the founder and CEO of REES, an online platform for reporting sexual violence on campus, to discuss the work REES is doing across Canada, and how REES functions specifically with Canadian Mennonite University.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Mike Thiessen: Could you give a little background about what is REES is and what it does?
Mary Lobson: In 2019, I knew that I wanted to create an online report platform specifically to address sexual violence and to reduce barriers to reporting because we know that it’s prevalent on campuses. About 70% of students witness or experience some type of unwanted sexualized behaviour on campus, yet we know that very few people actually come forward and report. So, I wanted to do something different. I reached out to all the post-secondary institutions in Manitoba to see whether they would be interested in using a reporting platform on their campus. CMU was one of the schools that showed initial certain interest. We then followed where we were able to get some money and do a pilot for all the campuses across the province, but CMU has been involved right from the very beginning.
As for an overview of the platform, there are multiple reporting options; there’s an anonymous report which provides anonymous data that goes back to CMU so that they can have ideas about patterns, trends, where things might be happening, time of year, those kinds of things. Then there is a Connect to My Campus feature which reports directly to Student Life. If someone is looking for supports and resources, if they need academic accommodation, whatever systems they might need, they can send the report directly to him. We are also partnered with Winnipeg Police Service, so that if a student wanted to report directly to the police, they could.
One of the important things for us is that the platform is trauma-informed and survivor-centred. One of the aspects of that is the ability of a student, staff, employee to create one record and choose from any or all of those options. For someone that has experienced harm, their memory may come back to them at different times. They might remember more, they might forget something and remember a few weeks from now, and they might not be sure about when they want to come forward or what they want that process to be. They can come create a record. They can nothing with it, or they can save it and decide what to do with it down the road. It really gives them the flexibility to be able to use the platform in the way that they want. We also have a feature called Repeat Perpetrator Identification that enables someone to identify that person that harmed them, and if someone else identifies that same person it will trigger a match and again CMU would be notified. Those are the reporting options.
MT: As for getting it started, in terms of motivation, was it simply the fact that the really is nothing in Manitoba prior to this?
ML: Nothing in Canada, not just Manitoba. There was really nothing available for online reporting across the country. There is an initiative called “Courage to Act” which is a national initiative looking specifically at the issue of campus sexual violence. Over the years there have been calls for reporting pathways, calls for anonymous reporting, students advocating for more clear reporting options coupled with the desire to have more data. Because there aren’t clear reporting pathways, there aren’t metrics, there aren’t ways of gathering that data. REES uses technology to enhance reporting options for people but also is also able to gather that data that then institutions can use to inform change on their campus.
MT: To what extent are you hoping to expand beyond what you have already done?
ML: We are now in seven provinces across the country, and we have several partner campuses. We also expanded into music festivals, and we recently partnered with Football Manitoba. So we’re certainly broadening who we do it for, but the core of what we’re doing is staying the same – it’s online reporting specifically for harms against persons, whether that’s sexual violence, discrimination, bullying, or anything else like that.
The end goal is to not need REES at all, to not even need to exist anymore because this is no longer an issue. But there’s a long pathway to get us there. So the short term would be having safe spaces for people to be able to come forward to share their information, to record their story, and then have options around how they want to come forward. We also have a space on the platform for supports and resources. Someone may not want to report, but they want to find out what resources are available in their community. It’s making sure that people are feeling supported and heard, and having spaces to access that information and on the institutions side it’s to provide information, insights, data, for them to create safer spaces and safe campuses.
MT: How do you feel or how have you seen REES impacting sexual violence on campuses, and then going into other avenues like music festivals and sport teams? Do you feel that you have seen REES impacting these areas directly?
ML: We have been on campuses two full years. This is out first year not in Covid, so in-person was really limited during that time – no events, that kind of thing, so it will be interesting this year to see what changes there might be from those two years prior years just by virtue of being in person. One of the things that strikes me is of all the reporting features, anonymous reporting has been the most utilized. When we think of what is a change that we have made we have made a new pathway that didn’t have prior for people to be able to come forward. To me that feels like a concrete tangible change that we’ve seen. We’ve seen that students using the platform are predominantly reaching out for support. We are hearing anecdotally back from our campus partners that REES created a bridge for them. They didn’t have to go knock on the door and share their story; they were able to reach out with an email, share their story and the person on other end – the sexual violence response staff or the support person on the campus end – already knew who was coming and, to some degree, what the issue was or what had happened. The ability to be a conduit for people to come forward, that’s important for us as well. These are some early things that we have seen.
MT: Thinking specifically about CMU, how do you think that REES should be used at a smaller school? For example, how would you use REES differently here than you would at U of M or another larger school that you’re partnered with?
ML: I think that is different then a big school. One of the opportunities that REES provides is anonymous reporting because in a small community people know one another both as students, faculty, and staff, but also as members of a faith community. They may have relationships outside of here as well or be from smaller communities where there’s a lot of close affiliation, so the ability to have an anonymous reporting pathway can be really beneficial because then that takes away the barrier of who’s going to see this, who’s going to know, and who’s connected to who. The ability to come forward without identifying oneself really helps to reduce barriers, especially in a small school.
We have a number of faith-based institutions. This is a broad sweeping statement, but historically- or generally-faith-based institutions can want not to step up and address the issue or acknowledge that this is happening in the community. Whether it is or not this is the case could be debated, but it can be more difficult or challenging to come forward in a smaller environment connected by faith because of relationships and, potentially, the culture of that faith community. We have campus partners that are faith-based schools that have very clear code of conduct related to relationships and behaviour that is permitted and not permitted. CMU is not as restrictive as some other environments, but at a faith-based school like that when you are not even able to hold hands with someone, the barrier to come forward to talk about sexual assault – behaviour that you know you are going to be judged for from a faith-based perspective – is going to be a lot higher.
MT: As you said, CMU is not as restrictive as some schools, but regardless, with any faith-based school, if there is a purity culture influencing anything at all then there could be the shame in coming forward – even separately from the whole issue of having been assaulted.
ML: Yes, the shame of that and what is the impact for me in my community. Not about my school, not about my academics, but within my community. What are the impacts of that going to be? A number of our faith-based schools didn’t have something called an immunity clause, which is a clause that if you violate a code of conduct at school related to behaviour, for example, you won’t be punished, sanctioned, or disciplined in any way. It’s a way of reducing barriers to come forward because then people at least know that if they did breach a contract or agreement that they have with the school, they won’t be disciplined because of it. We have been able to move that along in some of our faith-based schools so that they’ve adopted an immunity clause. That’s been important as well, to see where we can affect change in smaller schools. This doesn’t usually come out in interviews, but I have a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies, so I have studied a lot of contemporary Christian thought and I appreciate the nuanced differences in a faith-based institution. Like I said, some institutions or some faith communities are really open. One of our partners is Columbia Bible Collage and they had a really serious issue a few years ago and did some conferences and organizing around church, too. There’s a real contrast in faith communities around the level of willingness to acknowledge the issue and talk about it openly. I appreciate that CMU, for us, has been a really great partner, a really engaged partner.
MT: Do you have any final thoughts?
ML: Just that when I talk about us being trauma-informed, survivor-centered, privacy was also really important, privacy and data security both for users and for institutions. We spent a lot of time thinking about the ways student survivors need to be protected in how they share their information. So, the records are encrypted, we don’t use any tracking or third-party analytics, and we feel those are really important. It was something from a design perspective that was really important to us.
MT: CMU doesn’t currently have a student representative for REES. How would one go about getting involved?
ML: We typically put out applications every spring. The youth advisory board goes from July 1st – June 30th of every school year, so we do recruitment in the spring. Having said that, there are opportunities … we just had a really good event at the Goodwill a few weeks ago, it was lots of fun. There are opportunities for folks to become involved with us; we have an email address [email@example.com] and if someone is wanting to get involved we were at Summer of Sound in June last year. We had folks there handing out buttons, so there’s opportunities for folks to volunteer if that’s something they’re interested in doing. Someone might have a particular passion or idea of how they want to be involved like sometimes we need a photographer at things or thinking about the individual skills or however, they’d like to engage. We also would do student practicums. That might be another opportunity if a student was doing something with practicum opportunities. We would be interested in having a conversation there. If someone is wanting to become involved reach out and we’ll see what opportunities, we can find.