Rape Advocacy, Counseling, and Education Services (RACES) has been serving survivors of sexual assault in C-U and beyond for 50 years. They’ve had their challenges, most recently a state budget impasse that resulted in significant funding losses and of course, a pandemic, but they’ve remained steady and available for survivors and those who care about them throughout all of it.


April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so I sat down with RACES Executive Director Jaya Kolisetty to talk about the work RACES does in the community, and what we need to know about sexual assault and those who are impacted by it. Kolisetty began volunteering with RACES in 2013, and eventually came on as a staff member in prevention education. She was associate director for a time then did similar work for the Women’s Resource Center at the U of I for a couple of years before coming back to RACES as the executive director.

Smile Politely: We’re nearing the end of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. What do people need to know about the landscape of this work right now? There was a groundswell of awareness with the Me Too movement of a few years ago. What do things look like now?

Kolisetty: Like you said, with the Me Too movement, things get a lot of attention and then kind of contract…unfortunately sometimes there’s a bit of a backlash when people have the courage to talk about their experiences. Christine Blasey Ford is a prime example of the long term impact on survivors when they don’t have support in telling their experiences. That of course is something that continues.

But this current moment with the pandemic has certainly caused new challenges in terms of folks reaching out for support, especially for children and for people who are experiencing sexual violence as a part of an abusive relationship. Across the board we’re seeing a lot of people who may have been sheltering in place or working from home with their abuser. We’ve had to kind of get creative in terms of reaching people. We’ve recently created an outreach therapist position so we can meet with students or adults who are feeling comfortable or safe in other environments but unable to get to us. It’s never an easy time for survivors reaching out for support, but the pandemic has created some new barriers. And then there are of course the real safety concerns. We’ve started offering therapy services virtually, phone options, and we’re starting to have more and more clients come back into the office but we’re still taking precautions.

Our staff is put in difficult situations too. We respond to the emergency department 24 hours a day, and so safety related to someone who might be abusive to a client or staff is an ever present concern, but then concerns for safety related to the pandemic is a challenge as well.

SP: How has the pandemic impacted your ability to do the full scope of services that you’ve typically offered at RACES?

Kolisetty: For a while therapy was exclusively virtual or phone based, but we recognize that for a lot of clients that face to face interaction, especially during this time where people are so isolated, is a lifeline. We have been trying to get that option available to more people if that feels safe for them. One of the things that was really challenging, is that for a while the hospitals were not allowing medical advocates in person. It’s just not the same with a phone call. We were doing more asynchronous programming for prevention education. But at no point did we stop [offering our services].

I think a challenge that a lot of people might not think about, for a small agency like ours, is that as funding has been focused on imminent needs people have related to the pandemic — housing, healthcare…those of course are essential — some of the funding that might otherwise go to rape crisis centers or domestic violence shelters has been diverted. It’s been challenging to be sure we can continue to offer those services.

A black and white photo from the early 70s. Women are gathered and seated in chairs in a small room. Photo from RACES website.Photo from RACES website.

SP: The organization that became RACES began as a coalition put together by a group of women. How much do you know about that early history?

Kolisetty: It was a group of women in Champaign County who started to come together and talk about their experiences, especially related to working with law enforcement, the legal system, and medical system. There wasn’t support or an understanding of trauma. There’s still work we have to do, but we’ve certainly come a long way. They came together to create a community and try to be more proactive and make sure people are having these conversations. The early 1970s is when rape crisis centers in general were just getting started in this country, so we are one of the oldest. It’s important to recognize that even though that’s where our local agency has its roots, that’s not where the rape crisis movement itself started. Rape crisis centers never would have been created if it weren’t for the activism of Black women.

SP: How has the organization evolved into what it is today? One thing I thought of was the shift from it being solely focused on women, to a recognition that all genders are affected by sexual violence.

Kolisetty: I’m so glad you brought that up, because I think that’s one of the myths…that sexual violence only impacts women. We did start as Champaign County Women Against Rape, and we’ve expanded over time to make sure we are serving folks of all genders. People of all genders experience sexual violence, and people of all genders commit sexual violence. It’s important that we are being mindful of that, making sure that our office feels as safe as possible for folks. We serve survivors of all ages, as well as non-offending significant others.

We also serve people who experience stalking, which is something I think a lot of people don’t know. And we do serve people of pretty much every age. We’ll start offering therapy services as young as three years old, we’ll see survivors in the emergency department at any age. We also offer a wider range of services. We started with the hotline and on the ground work; we still have our hotline, but we also do have therapy services with masters level clinicians, including folks with specialized training in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). All of our services are free and confidential. We also have advocates who will go to the courthouse with folks; if people need help getting a protective order, we go to court with people and we’ll sit at the table with them.

We also have prevention education programming. We do programming preK through adult, then work with our university partners to get to as many people in our community as possible.

SP: What gives you hope?

Kolisetty: I’ve been doing this work in our community for almost 10 years, and I think in terms of hope, and what makes me more optimistic, is being able to be involved in the prevention side. And, seeing how a lot of younger people “get it.” Especially after spending two years on campus. The students were so passionate about changing things not only through activism, but that day-to-day activism of being there for people...being willing to call things out that are not appropriate or not okay. I see more and more younger people who want to be part of the change, and they’re willing to have those conversations in complex ways.

I'm a multi-racial person — my dad's side of my family is from India — and I've had some incredible conversations with other members of the Indian community of the importance of opening up these conversations, and thinking about culturally responsive services.

All of us can make a difference. We all know survivors whether they’ve disclosed to us or not. Just starting from that place of being able to educate oneself so that if we are needed [we know how to respond].

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RACES has a year long fundraising campaign for their 50th anniversary, with a goal of raising $50,000. Keep an eye on their social media for opportunities to participate in future fundraising events. If you are interested in supporting RACES as a volunteer, they are accepting applications for crisis hotline volunteers. You'll be required to take 40 hour crisis intervention training to make sure you're well prepared for the job. Find out more on the RACES website.

Top photo from RACES Facebook page.