For the fifth year, students, faculty and staff of the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith joined with the United Way of the Fort Smith Area and the Crisis Intervention Center to host Rising in the River Valley. This annual Valentine’s Day event proclaims a local commitment to One Billion Rising’s global initiative to end sexual assault and domestic violence.
UAFS Chancellor Terisa Riley led an emotional call to action before the annual symbolic march, first asking the UAFS students to stand in solidarity with each other. “These are dedicated individuals, these are students who understand what it means to be there for each other,” she said. “But also, these are the next leaders within our community. They are here because they believe strongly in this message, and more importantly they believe in each other, and they look out for each other.”
Riley, alongside Penni Burns, CEO of the Fort Smith Crisis Intervention Center, citing staggering statistics including that one in three women and one in four men experience violence from their partners in their lifetime; and one in three teenagers experience sexual abuse or threats from a boyfriend or girlfriend in one year’s time.
Across the globe more than one billion men and women will be assaulted during their lives, Burns explained, reminding attendees that the one in five women and one in 71 men who will be raped at some point in their lives and the one in three women and one in six men who will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives are all around them. She noted that the striking statistics apply as much to actors in the theater company as athletes on the field, and as much to strangers in the region as to attendees' friends and family.
As Riley solemnly delivered a call to action, her voice broke, saying, “As the chancellor of a university, there is no greater sorrow that I face in any day than the idea of anyone hurting my students." Wiping tears from her eyes she continued, “So our challenge today is to change this culture. Rise up, end the violence and break this cycle. I beg of you.”
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge also delivered a powerful opening, describing a close friend who defended her against bullies as a small child. “Unfortunately, Allison lost her life to her husband,” Rutledge said somberly. “I wish that I had been there to support and protect Allison as she supported and protected me.”
“This occurs to our friends, our families and our neighbors,” Rutledge continued, “people that we cannot imagine going through this. Let’s raise awareness. Let’s bring people out of the shadows and encourage them to step up and end domestic violence.” Domestic violence and sexual assault awareness is a key priority for Rutledge, whose office has implemented the Laura’s Card resource program and state-wide Break The Cycle training.
The UAFS Student Government Association also offered a resolution of support for Rising in the River Valley, and Fort Smith Mayor George McGill read a powerful proclamation. McGill, who has become known across the city for his slogan ‘Fort Smith proud, River Valley strong,’ asked the community to live that strength through action. “We’re strong because we take a strong stand against domestic violence,” he said. “Let’s stand up and speak out. Let’s be a strong city. And anything that is a detriment or a scar on our community – let’s be bold and take a stand against it.”
In addition to these powerful messages, Eddie Lee Herndon, president and CEO of United Way, thanked the many organizations who support victims in the region. Volunteers from service and support organizations across the area were present across the brick square, with groups such as the UAFS Title IX office, the Crisis Intervention Center, rehabilitation and transitional housing facilities, and local law enforcement manning tables and distributing resources.
Around the world participants in the global action to end violence collectively called for action through speakers, dances and symbolic marches. Attendees closed the event with a march across the campus green, where they held signs of solidarity and calls to action.