Sarah Berg was appointed the director of Sexual Assault and Prevention, the second person to hold this position, where she oversees the Office of Prevention Services and Rape Crisis Center (OPS).
Berg discovered a passion for prevention work while pursuing a Masters in Social Science in Denver. She became interested in doing research on domestic violence, but this led her to undertake a new experience.
“As I went deeper and deeper into that topic, it became clear to me that if I wanted to write about the experience of people going through domestic violence, that I needed to also give back to the community, so that I could be…part of that movement,” said Berg in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot. “I think just doing research on it and not helping felt voyeuristic to me.”
In what she described as the scariest thing she’s ever done, Berg started volunteering for a hotline, Safehouse Denver. After pushing beyond her initial fears, Berg realized that she had found her calling and pursued it as a career.
Berg comes to Brandeis from the University of Colorado at Denver, where she worked in the Title IX office as an education and training specialist. Her goal in this position was to reach the entire campus community, around 30,000 people, with training. While in this role, however, Berg missed the service and advocacy that comes with prevention work. She is excited to be working as an advocate again and to interact more frequently with students.
Brandeis is certainly a different type of campus than Denver, said Berg, which is a large commuter school where the average undergraduate age was 27.
“People told me when I was interviewed for the job that the students were very engaged, and I can see that right away,” Berg said of Brandeis. “The student staff I’m working with in this office have really blown me away.”
Berg considers a large part of her role to be about supporting others, including student staff, in the work they do. Student staff are involved with initiatives including the bystander intervention training program, for example. When Berg’s position was vacant last semester, two project managers oversaw the office—Carrie Robertson who works in graduate admissions and Elba Valerio from the Intercultural Center—but student staff played an active role in the day-to-day operations, said Sheryl Sousa ’90, Vice President for Student Affairs in an October interview with The Hoot.
As director, Berg’s early goals include expanding visibility of the office and accessibility of its resources. An initiative she hopes to tackle is expanding the bystander intervention training program. Her goal of having everyone going through some training with their office relates to the idea of visibility for Berg, as it helps introduce students to these staff members and to their services. “I think a lot of times the obstacle is not knowing anyone in this area,” Berg said, who hopes to get their names and faces out there.
In 2016, the Student Union Senate, in a joint initiative with OPS, passed a bylaw amendment requiring all club leaders to undergo annual bystander intervention training. This year, however, OPS asked the union to hold off on enforcing the program while they sought a more trauma-friendly framework to implement the program, said Sindberg, in an Oct. 2017 interview with The Hoot. Berg hopes the club leader program can come back, but said they still need to decide how to best implement it.
Berg also talked about the signs in the bathroom stalls which include the contact information for the RCC and the police emergency line. She said that there could be more information on the signs to expand knowledge of available services when people have the time to read, and learn, a bit more.
It can be confusing, Berg said, sifting through the different resources. “There’s really no wrong way to reach out, but confusion over where to start, it can shut a person down.”
So far, Berg has been going through OPS files and meeting with various campus employees and departments, including the Athletics Department, Orientation and Paula Slowe, a Title IX case manager. She hopes to collaborate with many people across campus. In her role, Berg also gives presentations around campus and meets with students who come in for services.
Berg was one of three finalists for the director position who visited campus for a presentation to students, faculty and staff last semester. At these meetings, the candidates discussed their background and shared their perspective on the results of Brandeis’ Campus Climate Survey.
“I think the most striking piece [of the survey] for me…was just a lack of awareness and or willingness to access those resources for students,” said Berg who noticed that of the respondents who self-reported they had experienced sexual assault, few made a formal report or sought out campus services.
Berg’s presentation also featured a conversation about the name of the Rape Crisis Center, noting how use of the word “rape” signals a very severe type of assault and can make someone feel like their experience is not severe enough to warrant coming in for services. “Like they don’t qualify,” said Berg. She wants to make the office sound less intimidating, for students who have questions, are worried about a friend and so on. “Reaching out for support after something bad happens is often the hardest step,” she said.
Berg replaces Sheila McMahon, the inaugural director of OPS, who left Brandeis this summer for a faculty position at the Barry School of Social Work. Berg is involved in the search for a new, permanent Survivor Advocate for the RCC. Julia Ricky left this position a few weeks after McMahon lefts hers. Both search processes began in the fall but were offset slightly so the new OPS director could provide input on the advocate hire.
“I really want to find someone who balances me. I try to think of all the shortcomings that I have and find a person who has those things, so we can be a really good team.”
Berg commented on the welcoming atmosphere at Brandeis. She has a list of people to meet and is eager to work with her staff and explore opportunities for collaboration across campus.