Denim and Determination
Dozens of pairs of blue jeans are hanging in downtown Milwaukee, thanks in no small part to Alverno student Diamond Thompson.
The jeans commemorate Denim Day, an annual event held around the world that seeks to raise awareness of sexual assault and to support survivors. Stretching three blocks on Wisconsin Avenue in the heart of the city’s downtown, the jeans serve as a visual call to stop victim-blaming.
“People know those jeans are hanging with a purpose,” says Thompson, who proudly sports a shirt declaring “No means no.”
Denim Day, set for April 25 this year, has been the focus of Thompson’s semester-long internship with adjunct Alverno instructor Dawn Helmrich. Helmrich, herself a survivor of sexual assault, brought Denim Day to Milwaukee seven years ago. The event has grown steadily since.
“She took something that is precious to her and shared it with me,” Thompson says of Helmrich. The two worked together to create the internship position from scratch.
Denim Day grew out of international outrage over an Italian court’s 1998 decision to overturn a rape conviction. The court concluded that because the woman who was raped was wearing tight jeans, she must have helped the perpetrator remove them. Today, advocates wear jeans on Denim Day to show their support for survivors, who are more plentiful than some may realize. In fact, one in six women has experienced rape or an attempted rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).
Denim Day, however, is more than symbolism. It represents an ongoing opportunity to educate community members, and Thompson recently helped organize and lead an advocacy training session for youth ambassadors. Teens learned about what constitutes sexual assault and how to avoid victim blaming (for instance, don’t ask a survivor what he or she was wearing).
“It was amazing” to see the teens asking questions and discussing a topic many consider taboo, says Thompson. One boy even suggested using chalk to draw a teal ribbon — the symbol of sexual assault awareness month — on his family’s doorstep. To Thompson, the teens’ engagement deflects any notions that young people don’t care or can’t handle such subjects.
“We have to teach them. If they don’t know where to go, how can they follow?” she says.
Thompson gained valuable professional experience throughout the internship, where she consistently analyzed the success of her efforts in order to engage community partners. For her, it not only allowed her to spread the word about an important topic but it also represented a chance to practice Alverno’s 8 Abilities outside the classroom.
“The 8 Abilities are a gift Alverno has given to us,” says Thompson, a Business and Management major set to graduate this May (the dynamic student has already accepted a job as an area manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car).
Helmrich says Thompson brought incredible drive and energy to the internship. Not only did she break through significant red tape to get the jeans hung, but she also trained her 15-year-old brother as a youth ambassador.
“She goes above and beyond,” says Helmrich. “She’s able to be organized and productive, and she also has big ideas she can execute. That is a rare, rare quality.”