Kelsey Smith organized the exhibit for Sexual Assault Awareness Month and had to be choosy when selecting each piece.

As she rounds the corner out of her office space in The Well, Kelsey Smith grips her spiral-bound journal. It makes sense — all the notes keeping her on track for the upcoming month take up the mini-booklet’s space. As she opens it up to today, she begins to chuckle.

“Oh my gosh, my calendar right now is insane,” Smith said.

The sexual violence prevention and survivor advocacy graduate assistant glances down at it intermittently. Mondays are her long days. 

Her required 20 hours as a GA for The Well in the Student Success Center are combined with 20 hours at a local middle school and three classes this semester. She does a variety of outreach programs throughout the year, but April contains one of her largest projects: Sexual Assault Awareness Month. 

The Well puts on multiple events to help JMU become more aware of power-based violence. These events include film screenings, discussion panels and open mic nights. The “Nevertheless” Art Exhibit, on display from April 8-19 in the Madison Union Airport Lounge, has been one of her main pieces. 

The exhibit, a collaboration among the JMU community that showcases an artistic expression of what it means to overcome trauma, aims to embody the spirit of hope in response to hardship. 

Last year’s exhibit, “What Were You Wearing?” was powerful and made people reflect on the ways they approach survivors, Smith said. But with this year, she hoped to make it “an all-encompassing bit of resilience and strength in response to trauma” and build on the idea that despite the barriers, survivors can, nevertheless, carry on.

“I wanted to figure out some way we could get them involved and provide another outlet to share their experiences or share some sort of artistic expression of an experience they had,” Smith said. “I wanted it to be a bit more uplifting.”

The process of getting all the facets of the event together started with a bulk email explaining the exhibit, its anonymity and that participants didn’t have to be a survivor to share their story — the goal was to include everyone’s voice. She’s since received more than 30 submitted pieces of poetry from students and additional artwork from the counseling center studio.

Seeing the extensive amount of support from faculty and students — as well as on-campus organizations such as Furious Flower Poetry — is what Smith says makes it worthwhile.

“I’m really excited about it,” Smith said. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity to give this space to the JMU community. I feel honestly really honored to hold that space.”

“Nevertheless” also has an interactive portion where people can choose to add their personal connection to power-based violence by writing above the submissions on the walls using a provided pen. Smith hopes it’ll ultimately come together as a mosaic of responses that showcase the prevalence of the issue in JMU’s culture.

Despite not being able to choose every submission for the exhibit — a task Smith said was difficult due to the powerful aspects of each one — she noticed people still felt it was a step forward, even if they weren’t selected.

“They could not express enough how important it was for them to even be able to share that,” Smith said. “To share their experience with this person on the other side of an email that they’ve never seen before.” 

Lindsey Willard, a senior psychology major and Smith’s student employee at The Well, remembers feeling humbled as she helped sift through the poetry submissions, saying she’s been “blown away” by the bravery and courage of each one.

“We hope students are kind of inspired to continue to share their stories and speak up for themselves or other students who have been affected by any form of sexual trauma,” Willard said. “I’m looking forward for all the students, wherever they stand right now, even if they haven’t been impacted personally … [to] have a new perspective.”

Willard feels there’s a freeing experience that accompanies being able to write down one’s survivor story without having to say it aloud. But she stresses that if people aren’t prepared to share it publicly in any way, there’s no pressure to do so. 

“A lot of people feel when they see in the media all these people coming forward and sharing their story, I think they tend to feel like they need to do that,” Willard said. “And something I would say is that it’s OK if you don’t feel you’re at that place yet.”

The exhibit, comfortably tucked in a corner of Madison Union, makes its presence known with the panels of wavy blue hues that highlight the submissions from the early adopters of Green Dot. Each excerpt explains its connection to power-based violence. 

Poems and artwork take up the right-hand side with a table of resources placed in between. One poem by sophomore Jayden Allis hangs in the middle, finalized with the sentence, “we will find a way to swim together.” 

Their piece is one of two submissions with a first and last name. Allis feels that attaching a name to their experience personifies it, so it’s not as distant.

“I found it kind of interesting whenever people talk about sexual assault — especially if you’ve gone through it — people cling to each other even though we’re all struggling with the same thing,” Allis said. “I really wanted it to be kind of supportive in the idea that even though it’s difficult to think about and deal with, there are people who’ve gone through it.”

Willard’s passion for making a difference in the JMU community and seeing friends who’ve felt the university isn’t advocating for survivors fuels her dream of one day becoming a counselor for sexual violence. Both Smith and Willard hope the exhibit sparks conversation and shows to both the people sharing and the people viewing that they’re not alone.

“I always felt like I couldn’t make a difference because I was like ‘What can I do?’” Willard said. “But after working in The Well and going through Green Dot training and learning about practical ways I can make a difference and step up for survivors, I’ve learned that if we all come together as a collective, we can all make a difference.” 

Contact Sabrina Moreno at morenosx@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.