I gave Shalisa Gladney a hug when she emerged from her office to greet me at the University of Iowa Women’s Resource and Action Center.
During our conversation, much of which focused on relationships and consent, Gladney admitted she is not a hugger — I had neglected to check before going in for an embrace. But she absolved me, saying she’d remembered I was a hugger; she wondered if next time I see her, I’ll remember that she isn’t.
Open and honest communication, we agreed, is a process of learning how to be in a relationship with someone. And what better way to address larger systemic issues than focusing on how to have healthy relationships?
Gladney is the campus violence prevention educator with the UI’s Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP). She, Martha Pierce and Cody Howell make up what Gladney emphatically calls the “bomb-ass team” of full-time violence prevention specialists.
In her position, Gladney talks to college students about components of healthy relationships, consent and dismantling rape culture; she also occasionally intervenes in potentially dangerous situations.
Growing up, Gladney said, the education she received regarding sex and relationships was focused on abstinence. Now, as an educator, she hopes she can “encourage folks, young and old, to write their own healthy relationship rules.”
“I want to be a part of work that shapes how I want the world to look,” Gladney said. “I want to be involved with projects that create positive change. I want to be part of the solution.”
Gladney works through a radical, feminist, queer lens.
“The term ‘queer’ incorporates a lot — it’s a broader term than what some of us understand it as,” Gladney said. “I’m going to use it as a synonym for ‘radical.’”
She sees a “radical” approach as a way of thinking outside the box and being a part of creating change that starts with how we relate to one another.
Six values play into Gladney’s interactions with clients, she said: negotiation and fairness, respect, trust and support, open communication, shared responsibility and honesty.
Gladney loves talking to students about consent, and she helps them expand their definitions of consent beyond the erotic — friendly hugs, for example. Within the work space, you might pause before stepping into someone’s office to say, “I want to talk to you about this thing I’m experiencing. Do you have the capacity for that right now?” If you’re a parent, you might ask your child, “Could you use a hug right now?” If someone is crying or in distress, consider posing, “Can I sit here with you? Can I hug you?”
“Consent is an agreement to participate in or begin an activity [or] interaction,” Gladney said. “I try to practice using consent in my everyday interactions as a way to normalize consent culture. The more you do something or practice it, the better you get at it, right?”
She sees consent as an active, ongoing process based on equal power and choice.
“Consent can definitely be sexy, such as asking a partner to take off your shirt, or asking if you can take off theirs,” she added.
Boundaries, another essential component of healthy relationships, look different for everyone. When talking with clients about setting boundaries, Gladney emphasizes the importance of talking in “plain terms” and avoiding intellectualizing. She said she tries to both model and give many different examples of open, honest communication.
“You would never take someone’s car without asking. Why would you ever take or do something from someone without making sure that is exactly what they want?” she said.
Her clients are the experts on their own relationships, Gladney acknowledges; her role is to help facilitate and navigate sometimes sensitive conversations.
“I try to keep in mind boundaries between individuals are dynamic and can change as circumstances change,” she said. “I think of a boundary as a limit, where one thing ends and another begins.”
Setting boundaries, identifying our needs and sharing how we really feel can be a process, one that might involve some missteps.
“I fuck up all the time, and I own it,” she said. “I work on this every day. We need to get rid of the word ‘competence.’ I love the idea of having some humility. We own our mistakes and get on with it, understanding we all mess up sometimes.”
But Gladney also emphasized the importance of accountability as a means of healing when one’s boundaries are violated, particularly when it comes to domestic violence.
“Often I think what we do instead of holding people accountable for the harm they do is we write them off and we’re just done with that,” she said. “It’s often not the people who are being harmed who are writing them off; it’s the individuals who saw the harm. Without that accountability piece … they just move on to the next victim.”
These thoughts reminded me of a conversation I had last fall with Kathryn Duarte, assistant director for sexual assault services at RVAP, about the importance of demanding a “responsibility component” from perpetrators to validate survivors’ experiences.
Both Duarte and Gladney extolled the virtues of listening to an individual’s unique perspective, which is often informed by their background.
“Everyone brings a different experience and understanding of what it takes to make a relationship work,” Gladney said. “I’m a black woman from a community where the way we talk about relationships is different than some of the ways my white friends talk about relationships.”
“When thinking about what it means to draw my own boundaries, I think about how my identities impact that. What are my barriers to setting and communicating those boundaries?”
Gladney said she strives not to make any assumptions, in and outside the office, to ask the people in her life what they need and to be clear about her needs to them. She acknowledges when she comes into a space, she can’t separate herself from her gender, sexual orientation, race or any other part of her.
“I’m going to bring all of me,” she said. “I might be able to read what someone else’s identities are, but I’m going to ask them what a healthy relationship is to them and why — and see how it differs from the way I see it.”
Gladney said there are a number of local organizations providing vital services to marginalized communities, including WRAC, RVAP, Sankofa Outreach Connection and the Emma Goldman Clinic. She said she is currently developing a project by and for the black community on campus to talk about healthy relationships and sexual health, and she sees a need for more spaces for black queer folks in the local community.
“While I have the energy and capacity, I want to be a part of the solution in creating a better world,” she said. “It’s exhausting but rewarding work!”
Thankfully for us in Johnson County, Shalisa Gladney is just getting started.
Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 266.