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Ypsilanti — It took nearly two decades, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said, for her to talk about being sexually assaulted.

As the chief executive of state government, her course from victim to survivor has been particularly empowering.

“In 1989, I was a freshman at Michigan State who didn’t know where to turn,” Whitmer told about 500 people Tuesday, delivering the keynote speech at a conference on campus sexual assault at Eastern Michigan University.

“I never would have imagined that I would be standing here before all of you as the 49th governor of the great state of Michigan amplifying the message that you are promoting, but also sharing my hopes that we continue to move forward.

“We must, we will and we can do better. It takes every one of us to change a culture. It doesn’t happen overnight. But with a sustained, focused and thoughtful energy, we will change this.”

The “Let’s End Campus Sexual Assault” initiative, launched five years ago by Sue Snyder, the wife of former Gov. Rick Snyder, seeks to unite university officials, students, law enforcement, legislators, sex crime and survival experts, and those affected by the issue and their loved ones.

Goals include informing students, empowering survivors and bystanders, and preventing sexual assault at colleges and universities.

Whitmer and Sue Snyder sat elbow to elbow in the audience before they both addressed attendees at the fifth annual summit for the initiative.

 “While I give a lot of speeches, and I do most of it with just a few notes in front of me, I actually had to write this one out because the subject is hard,” Whitmer said. “As a survivor myself, there are unexpected moments that happen in a day that remind me: You carry this moment for the rest of your life.”

The former Ingham County prosecutor, who said she has worked on sexual assault as a law enforcement issue, listed the sobering statistics.

“One-in-five women, one-in-16 men and one-in-four transgender or nonbinary students will be sexually assaulted when they are in college,” Whitmer said.

“But what the statistics don’t show us is how much pain they carry after an assault. And that pain is something I speak about.

“There is much work to do, but I know we are up to this challenge.”

Whitmer said she also spoke as the mother of two daughters, and one who helped pick out campus housing this autumn.

“And I know we don’t want to add their voices to the Me Too movement,” she said, referring to the campaign that encourages sex assault victims to report abuses and publicly identify assailants. 

“We want to end the movement.”

Whitmer announced that in addition to calling a hotline, 855-VOICES-4, victims of sexual assault, their families and friends may now send a text to 866-238-1454 to get immediate help from trained professionals.

“As anyone who lives with a college student knows, texting is a lot easier to communicate, especially on an issue that is so hard,” she said.

The state is one of two to offer a confidential hotline for survivors of sexual assault, said the governor, who is the second woman to serve as Michigan's top elected official.

“Michigan is in many ways a leader in addressing sexual assault on our campuses,” she said. “We’re also an example of failure. And that is why it is so important that we take this moment and continue to move forward.”

Snyder called the annual event a joyful moment.

“We're celebrating five years of driving culture change surrounding this incredibly important issue in the state of Michigan,” she said.

Sponsors of the summit included nine universities: Eastern Michigan, Michigan, Grand Valley State, Ferris State, Oakland, Northern Michigan, Saginaw Valley, Michigan State and Western Michigan, plus the Michigan Association of State Universities.

Representatives of state Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office attended, as well as Col. Joseph Gasper of the Michigan State Police and staff from a few members of the state's congressional delegation.

About a dozen side sessions were conducted throughout the day on a variety of topics, including: “Amplifying Your Voice to Prevent Sexual Assault,” “Technology Safety and Intimate Partner Violence” and “Building Relationships in Athletics.”

Whitmer said she is hopeful of progress on preventing assaults and caring for the victims.

“I believe we are on the cusp of great things,” she said. “That we are capable of taking on this challenge.

“Every survivor’s path is different. But what we can and we must do is to make sure that every survivor has the support and help they need to navigate life on their terms, and to heal from their assault."

Continuing the struggle is necessary, others at the summit said, especially on campus and for people of color who are survivors of sexual assault.

“I think it’s definitely a slow ship to turn,” said Brenda Tracy, who established a nonprofit advocacy group called Set The Expectations after she reported she was raped by four NCAA football players in 1998.

“I think we need to stop talking about all this amazing progress we’ve made and all the great things we’ve done, because we haven’t really made that much progress on campuses.

“And until we start hearing from survivors, 'My school treated me well,’ I am just not willing to pat anyone on the back.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said survivors remain hesitant to report the crimes on campus.

“We have 35-plus colleges, community colleges and trade schools in my county,” Worthy said. “And I can count on one hand how many acts of sexual assault have been reported in the almost three decades that I have been involved in the criminal justice system.

“And we know that is not an accurate portrayal of what happens.”

Women and other survivors of color face particular barriers to enforcing the law and recovering from sexual assaults, Tracy and Worthy said.

“As a white person, speaking to white people in the room, we built this system of oppression and racism, and we cannot just stand idly by and expect people of color to fix this issue,” Tracy said.

“We have to start listening to people of color. We have to stop being defensive, and we have to figure out what can I do to make a difference in this.”

gkrupa@detroitnews.com

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