BEMIDJI -- Down on the shores of Lake Bemidji, surrounded by a gentle breeze, soft evening light, the echoing of a drum circle and the crackling of a bonfire, Bemidji community members took back the night.
Thursday evening, Support Within Reach, Bemidji State University, the Northwest Indian Community Development Center, Community Resource Connections, Red Lake Nation, and the United Way of Bemidji Area partnered together to host “Take Back the Night” -- a healing, solidary and awareness event for community members and survivors of sexual violence.
A few dozen people, both BSU students and community members alike, participated. Survivors were given opportunities to share their stories, volunteers connected community members with resources, and attendees were able to cathartically burn notes and letters.
The event was intended to facilitate healing.
A bonfire was burning to provide survivors a place to burn tokens and messages, and the microphone was kept open for community members to share stories, support or poems.
Support Within Reach advocate Kori Nelson said, “It's a kind of a healing process when people tell stories. Maybe a victim is in the crowd, and they're like, ‘Oh you know, I want to talk but I don't know, I don't want to be the first person to go and talk.’ So, when other people are going up and talking it might encourage them to talk about it.”
Nelson said all community members, whether or not they had been affected by sexual violence, could find the burning ritual a healing experience.
“There's actually a healing ritual that has been around for years, that if you say, ‘I'm a victim of sexual violence, and I want to write something to my offender and get that off my chest.’ I would write that on a note and then toss it in the fire, and this kind of gives like a fresh new start, this thought is now off my chest,” she explained. “In the past, we've had BSU sports players, say, I will not participate in victim-blaming language, and then they'll toss that in the fire, as a promise to other victims and survivors that they aren’t going to support that.”
The Take Back the Night event has occurred in some fashion on and off in Bemidji for more than 35 years. The movement started in Europe in 1976 and has continued throughout the world to support survivors in their healing process and to raise awareness of sexual and domestic violence.
Nationally, April is observed as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and is also officially Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the city of Bemidji as well, due to a mayoral proclamation. At the Bemidji City Council meeting on April 19, Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince issued a proclamation, designating April 22 as, “Take Back the Night Day" and April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month for the city of Bemidji.
He wrote, “I urge all citizens to take action to work toward the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and to create a safer environment for all.”
“That is really the month that we drive down and focus. We try to do prevention all year round, but when April comes along, and there's really a bigger focus on it because it is sexual assault awareness month,” Nelson said. “A lot of prevention work is done around April. It’s a good time for people just to come together and have that healing practice and to unite and support each other.”
A variety of community leaders took the microphone during Thursday’s event.
Bemidji Police Officer Trent Senenfelder was invited to speak and addressed the group saying, “Your presence tonight is a powerful statement of solidarity, letting everyone know survivors are not alone. Sexual violence is a traumatizing experience that leaves a long-lasting impression on the victim and the people who love them. However, when we are able to get together like this and support each other and be there for each other, it can make the healing process a little bit easier and can help us transform from victims to survivors. That is what tonight is about.”
Advocates from Support Within Reach, a six-county nonprofit that hopes to reduce the impact and harm of sexual violence, clarified their role in the community.
“Support Within Reach, if you're not familiar with what we do, we are a sexual violence resource center. What that means is if someone is a victim or survivor of sexual violence, they can come to us for resources and support. We do peer support, we provide assistance to medical exams, when they have a sexual assault exam, we accompany to law enforcement interviews, and follow them through the court process,” Nelson said. “We stay with victims and survivors as long as they want.”
Ordinarily, the Take Back the Night event would consist of a march through the streets of downtown Bemidji, ending at Paul Bunyan Park. The event was entirely canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. Many in attendance expressed their delight that the event was happening in person in any capacity, instead of on Zoom.
Looking around the group of people gathered at the event, Nelson said, “This is really awesome, especially with COVID. We had to cancel last year's event. So it's really nice to see people out and getting together for a good cause.”