It’s one thing to visit a coffee shop and order a soy latte. It’s quite another to walk in and be asked about sexual violence.

That juxtaposition was exactly what U-M senior Sara Fess was hoping for when she launched a unique project at M-36 Coffee Roasters Café on South University Avenue, just off Central Campus. A volunteer with the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, she had one question for customers — Imagine a world without sexual violence: What would be different?

Providing sticky notes and pens, Fess asked coffee lovers to record their answers and affix them to a “vision wall” in the cafe.

“It was meant to spark conversation. When you go in to get coffee, people aren’t expecting to think about sexual violence prevention on campus. It’s not something that always comes up,” Fess said. “When I put it in the coffee shop, I was hoping people would see it and think about it. Maybe you’d talk about it with the person next to you.”

She was overwhelmed by the written responses left on the wall:

“I could wear anything I feel like wearing”
“Could walk alone at night”
“People would feel safer”
“Less fear in the world”

Fess works part-time at the coffee shop, but even on days off, she made a point of stopping in to monitor the Post-its going up on the wall. She wanted to see that faculty, staff and, particularly, fellow students left notes.

“Every day when I went, I saw new ones, and I read them,” she said. “It meant a lot to me.”

The fall semester exhibit was part of Fess’ work participating in Hidden Voices. This national organization uses the power of storytelling and individual experiences to raise awareness about social issues and underrepresented communities, and sought a U-M student involved with SAPAC to be part of a leadership cohort of college students.

Of some 200 students who volunteer at SAPAC, Fess was the “unanimous choice” to be nominated for a 10-month leadership role with Hidden Voices, said Kelsey Cavanagh-Strong, program manager for student engagement.

She said Fess stood out because of her long involvement with SAPAC’s Survivor Empowerment and Ally Support Program. It is SAPAC’s most extensive volunteer program, with students like Fess trained to assist survivors of sexual violence and help them heal.

Fess was one of 17 students from 14 universities involved with Hidden Voices. Other universities included Duke, Georgetown, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, San Diego State, Texas and Virginia.

In another project with Hidden Voices, Fess helped lead a Zoom program that attracted people from several college campuses, including U-M, to read aloud accounts of sexual violence from survivors, allies, emergency room nurses, faculty and students. The readings were coupled with open discussions about raising awareness on campuses about sexual assault.

As with the Hidden Voices readings, all SAPAC programming has gone remote because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of Zoom and other virtual channels has had unintended and positive consequences for students dealing with sexual violence, said Cavanagh-Strong.

“It’s incredible to see what a virtual platform can do for students. In ways, it has helped individuals feel more comfortable,” Cavanagh-Strong said.

For example, SAPAC’s Annual Survivor Share and Speak Out took place on Zoom in December and attracted more than 100 student survivors and their allies. Survivors and their allies were more inclined to share their experiences on-screen and offer support through chat functions, she said.

“In the past, there have been many long moments of silence, whereas, in this last speakout, it didn’t feel that way,” she said. “There were a lot of students who wanted to share. The number of students who were in the event and unmuted themselves and said, ‘I wasn’t planning on sharing at all, but now I want to because of the amount of support I feel from the people here’ was pretty amazing to see.”

For Fess, whether working remotely on Zoom or hands-on with her coffee shop vision wall, volunteering with SAPAC has been a highlight of her time at U-M. As a sophomore on the Student Advisory Board for Counseling and Psychological Services she realized the mental health impact of sexual assault, leading her to attend a SAPAC information session.

“The work they do sounded amazing. Sexual assault is such a prevalent issue on college campuses. People don’t necessarily know the available resources. I didn’t know about SAPAC until I joined it,” said Fess, who continues to volunteer for CAPS.

“Being able to know about it and talk about it with other people to make sure they know about the resources — even if it’s something they wouldn’t ever use — has been a great experience for me.”

The leaders of Hidden Voices have already reached out to SAPAC for another U-M student to join their next leadership cohort and follow in Fess’ footsteps.

Fess, from San Diego, California, is studying political science and sociology and will graduate in April. She plans to take off a year before attending law school and, ideally, continuing to volunteer for a sexual assault prevention organization.

In the meantime, she is hanging on to the sticky notes from the coffee shop. “I’m keeping them forever,” she said.

This article originally appeared in January 31, 2022 edition of The University Record