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Advancing Voices of Women, a local nonprofit organization, will hold a “civil conversation” on sexual harassment Jan. 23 at the Arts United Center, 303 E. Main St.

Allen Superior Judge Fran Gull and women and children’s advocate Pat Smallwood will talk about the topic “He Said/She Said,” including the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment as well as asking the question “are people innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent in sexual assault?”

“AVOW is just a desire, with the three other co-founders, to help women get more involved with public life and in their community,” said Patti Hays, an AVOW co-founder and the CEO of the AWS Foundation. Hays co-founded the organization with Faith Van Gilder, an account supervisor at Asher Agency; Rachel Tobin-Smith, an executive coach for nonprofits and former CEO of SCAN; and Marilyn Moran-Townsend, chairman and chief executive officer of CVC Communications – Business Storytellers.

AVOW focuses on what it calls three pillars to advance the voices of women in northeast Indiana. The Paul Helmke School for Women in Public Life — named for the former Fort Wayne mayor who is now director of the Civic Leaders Center at Indiana University Bloomington — offers classes and seminars to help women become more involved in public life, including serving on boards, running for office and more. A second pillar aims at opinion columns on crucial issues. The third pillar focuses on civil conversations between women about issues facing this community and the nation.

That third pillar will be the focus of the discussion 5:30-7:30 p.m. Jan. 23.

“So much of being successful in public life is understanding how to have civil conversations when topics are difficult,” Hays said. “What Pat and Judge Gull will do is help those women practice talking about difficult issues, listening attentively, sharing their opinions and all of the other areas that we focus on with civil conversation elements.”

Included in the conversation will be the laws and protocols for reporting sexual assault and the process when it is reported, the prevalence of false accusations and the aforementioned focus of the differences between assault and harassment.

Smallwood, who started with victim’s assistance in the Allen County Sheriff’s Department in 1979, has spent the majority of her adult life advocating for women and children. Her programs have been among the first in the state in victim assistance. She currently acts as a forensic interviewer for the Bill Lewis Center for Children. She also does supervision and training of other interviewers and does some work in the courts as an expert witness on domestic violence and sexual assault.

“I learned a long time ago that there are political ways to get things done. It doesn’t help to attack and accuse people, so I reserve that for the most egregious situations when I couldn’t get anything done any other way,” Smallwood said on the topic of civil conversation. “But, you always get more things done if you actually try to see where the other person is coming from, try to hear what is fueling where they are at and find a way to help them understand your agenda or your point of view.”

The free event, as all AVOW civil conversations do, will include a small panel. Gull and Smallwood will handle an overview of the topic of the night, on sexual assault/harassment. Smallwood will be able to discuss the topic from a victim assistance role while Gull will, in part, discuss legalities. The hope of the AVOW leaders is that first discussion will spark conversation, then the audience will break down among smaller tables for discussion. Hays says that part is done at random so that if you come with friends, you will be put at different tables than with each other. That part of the evening will last 30-40 minutes.

The goal will be to find a common ground to work out of, Hays said.

“There is some common ground we can agree on, then you can move forward from there,” she said.

The “He Said/She Said” aspect of the conversation will be one of the more prevalent topics, as will be the question ‘Why didn’t she do something?” For Smallwood, that question alone has become a hot-button issue nationally in the last year or so.

“I think that there are a lot of misconceptions, myths about what happens in a sexual assault. There is this idea that if someone doesn’t come forward immediately, that somehow their report is suspect, that it couldn’t have happened, that it didn’t happen, that they are making it up for some reason to hurt the other person,” Smallwood said.

She points out that from research, history and statistics, that most women do not report immediately. And, the number of actual false reporting of sexual assaults is between 2 and 5 percent, nearly equivalent to those who falsely report robberies and muggings.

“It is a very difficult decision to come forward. One of the main reason women do not come forward is they don’t think anyone is going to believe them and they don’t want to be accused and attacked if they say something,” Smallwood said. “I would hope that people would come away having a better understanding of what things are that are in play, that interfere with a decision to come forward immediately.”

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