By: Akhil Joondeph
January 24 2021 was a difficult day to be on social media for Palo Alto High School students. Instagram feeds, Snapchat stories, and even Facebook timelines were flooded with stories from survivors of sexual misconduct, eliciting schoolwide support for their bravery and anger towards alleged perpetrators and administrators who supposedly mishandled sexual violence cases.
The cascade of allegations brought the (sadly) age-old conversation surrounding Paly’s rape culture back to the forefront of public dialogue.
As I sat back and watched this tornado of emotions grow and progress, I was left feeling both overwhelmed and guilty; Overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the issue at hand, and guilty for not doing “enough” to dismantle the patriarchal forces that built up the toxic culture that led to the outburst itself. So when I was offered the opportunity to cover the issue as a journalist, I readily agreed — both to do my part to inform the community of the issue at hand, and (more selfishly) to feel a little bit less complicit in the problem. I naively believed that public actions and performative behavior could help me feel better about myself. Spoiler alert: they did just the opposite.
After picking up the project, the ensuing deep dive into procedures and records, survivor stories, social media posts and statistics, previous articles, and official statements from the school district did little to ease my discomfort and instead amplified it to new degrees. There were days where I sat in silence in my room for longer than I would care to admit after interviews, shocked, sickened, and saddened by the stories I heard. Combing through transcripts as I worked on my drafts was an emotional struggle, and for many weeks writing became something I began to dread.
With this discomfort lodged in my brain came perspective. If understanding the trauma of others secondhand could be so difficult for me, the pain these survivors must go through on a daily basis is beyond comprehension. As a person who has never been subject to sexual violence, I did not and probably will never understand the trauma that my sources were going through. I began to regard my own emotional soreness as necessary and important, a fraction of that of the survivors whose stories I was enlisted to tell. I moved forward, now more determined than ever to do justice to the project I had (quite literally) poured my soul into.
The next hurdle came with the editing process. While my attachment to my words is usually minimal, every change made to my work felt like a tiny reduction in the value of the stories of the survivors I interviewed. With every reworked paraphrase came fleeting helplessness and worry that the original stories were being diluted.
Even more demeaning were the edits given by my advisor, a staff member not present on the social media pages commonplace to Paly students. The lack of context he had going into reviewing my work made for some emotionally difficult comments; while his ideas were beyond valid (especially considering his limited knowledge of the situation), they felt like direct attacks on the sources who relived trauma to share their experiences.
As frustrating as this process was, it helped me understand my biases as a student, especially in crafting an unbiased story. While I entered the project under the notion of believing survivors, I automatically discredited administrators and subconsciously made them look worse than they truly were. While it resulted in some tears, a bit of harsh pushback was my best friend in bettering my coverage.
Looking back at my work now, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to write and report a collection of stories that I am beyond proud of. Even more importantly, however, the process of approaching this issue and these stories has pushed and pulled me in every way imaginable, leaving me a better writer, reporter, and most importantly a better human.
All of this is to endorse discomfort. It was the pain that I felt that helped me empathize the most with my sources. It was the hurt that I took from them that fueled my desire to truthfully share their stories. And it was the tiny slivers of my sources’ trauma that they passed onto me that fit into the magic keyhole within me, unlocking a level of understanding previously inaccessible and unreachable.
While doing something big and performative to show support seems like an easy way to feel better about oneself and helping the greater problem at hand, I challenge you to take a step back. Don’t give in to Instagram stories shaming you for failing to repost 30 slide decks on a single day. If you are going to do something, try your hardest to find a way to hear from those affected and listen to their pain. Only with deep understanding is thoughtful community change and healing possible.
Akhil is currently an Editor-in-Chief for Verde Magazine, Palo Alto High School’s news and features publication. Read his published articles on Paly’s Title IX controversy below.