What began as a student-led campaign hashtag to show support for survivors of sexual abuse by former MSU physician Larry Nassar has turned into a movement that is part of the fabric of the university.
In early 2018, Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault. As the MSU community struggled to grasp the magnitude of his crimes, students in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences created a campaign to show support for survivors and raise awareness about sexual assault and abuse. That campaign sparked a movement known as #GoTeal.
More than a year later, aspects of the #GoTeal campaign can still be found on campus and its message of activism for sexual assault awareness, prevention and response remains at the forefront of university actions.
The start of a movement
A group of young women set out to influence the culture at MSU in early 2018. Working together in a voluntary strategic challenge, they conceptualized #GoTeal first as a hashtag accompanied by a video of a flower wilting that then plays in reverse — a metaphor for the journey of survivors of sexual assault.
Students Amanda McCafferty, Larraine Fu, Carlie Wirebaugh, Tianyi Xie and alumna Yi Rong combined creative forces to bring the concept to life.
Their efforts began during an Idea-A-Thon challenge hosted by Professor Ross Chowles, who invited students to develop strategic solutions as part of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. Chowles witnessed the TV camera crews documenting the crisis on campus, and developed a brief based on the issue.
“It was tragic. Now, MSU is famous, but for the wrong reasons,” says Chowles. “So, that was the brief I gave the students. I said, ‘How do we turn this negative into a positive?’”
Students seized the opportunity to use open communication and the power of creative expression to show support for survivors across campus.
Since its inception, the students leading the campaign have given out more than 2,000 teal ribbons to members of the community. The creators also continue to host events around East Lansing, partnering with organizations to provide speakers, resource fairs, self-defense training and more. They also distribute Speak Up cards with empowering images and resources for victims. Speak Up posters featuring students wearing teal hang in buildings across campus and nearby businesses with the goal of encouraging members of the community to speak up against sexual assault.
While the messages offered support and understanding to survivors, the goal of the campaign was to motivate people to action, to encourage everyone to play a role in stopping sexual assault before it happens.
“Our main target audience was bystanders who don’t always know what to say and who need help making that leap from bystander to ally,” says McCafferty. “I’m proud of our team being a voice in all this chaos. I’m saddened that this is a part of our history forever.”
The color that changed everything
“Go Teal was sort of the nucleus of student activism,” says Mark Auslander, director of the MSU Museum.
The MSU Museum currently is featuring the exhibit “Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak,” which was co-curated with survivors and their allies. It will run through March 20, 2020.
The exhibit includes visual art, poetry, text and audio installations that “celebrate the power of singular and collective voices to challenge injustice, demand institutional accountability and build a better world.” Many of the student-led efforts throughout the year were preserved for the exhibit.
“What’s wonderful is that it’s also about the power of design, the power of color,” says Auslander. “We all have these enormous defenses against facing up to the most tragic and unpleasant aspects of life, and these students — these advertising, public relations and communications students — really understood that these technologies of persuasion can be used for something more than just selling stuff, but can actually be transformative and reach and wake up all of us unto our better angels.”
“I was glad to see some productive advocacy coming out of MSU at that time,” says survivor Danielle Moore. “Being a survivor is incredibly isolating, and when you see these groups of people kind of rallying for your cause it makes it less isolating. That makes you feel less alone and that you are more supported. For so long, there was no support.”
One of those public displays of support was the creation of a human teal ribbon, with the help of ASMSU — MSU’s student government — as well as It’s On Us Week, MSU and other organizations. It first was orchestrated in 2018 and recreated during It’s On Us Week in April 2019.
“The human teal ribbon event last year was possibly the most empowering night of my life,” says McCafferty. “We were a sea of teal — MSU students wearing teal, standing in solidarity for survivors saying, ‘We see you. We hear you. We believe you.’”
A lasting ribbon of hope
For students, the most powerful part of producing the #GoTeal campaign was the ability to make meaningful change. It’s their hope that #GoTeal will live on as a lasting ribbon of hope for survivors of sexual assault.
The work of these recent graduates also garnered attention at the regional and national level. #GoTeal received five Gold ADDY Awards in Mid-Michigan, advancing to the national competition at the American Advertising Federation.
McCafferty says the color was symbolic of the movement for many reasons.
“Coming from a background in communication and art, the color teal is actually a shade of blue and green: blue acts as a calming property and the green is supposed to add its renewal qualities. Artistically speaking, it serves as a revitalizing color,” says McCafferty. “We wanted to spark that energy into the community to speak up and speak out against sexual assault, so that something like this would never happen again.”
In the future, the organizers behind #GoTeal plan to carry on the powerful work they’ve started, whether by creating a nonprofit organization, creating a fresh campaign each year or by finding other students to carry the teal torch.
As the movement evolves, its essential call to activism remains.
“Don’t just be a bystander. Be an ally,” says McCafferty.
Adapted from a story by Melissa Priebe, MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences