meet 20-year-old sara li of project consent
In 2014, Sara Li began a nonprofit called Project Consent in order to raise awareness about sexual assault. As a junior in high school, Sara began this endeavor in her room by posting on social media—an act that sparked conversations and connected her to like-minded individuals who believed in her cause. Three years later, Project Consent has grown from its roots in the Midwest into a movement that makes an impact all across the globe. Here, Girls & Glory had the opportunity to speak with Sara about the importance of education, Project Consent’s mission to bring positive change, and how people can make a difference in their own communities.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Sara and I’m 20 years old. I’m a junior at the University of Kansas, studying Journalism and Creative Writing and I started Project Consent when I was 17, so that would be my junior year of high school.
What motivated you to start the nonprofit in high school?
I really wanted to raise awareness about sexual assault and help survivors who aren’t getting the respect or justice that they deserve. There wasn’t really a program out there that talked about what sexual assault was and what survivors go through so I wanted to create something that would bring about positive change.
What was your ultimate goal when you started the Project?
Originally, I decided that it was going to be an art project. But once it snowballed into a legitimate organization, I wanted to develop a comprehensive educational plan about sexual assault and consent. [I wanted it to be] something that we can integrate in our society and hopefully reduce the number of sexual assaults happening around the world.
Since you did start Project Consent when you were 17, what was the most challenging part about founding the organization during your first year?
I mean, I think when you’re 17 years old, you’re surrounded by people who aren’t really understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish. ‘Cause I was going into my junior year of high school, and I think a lot of people were just really mean about it because it wasn’t something that was really talked about in my community. So people were mean at school and would post rude stuff online but it’s one of those things that you kind of just get used to because you have to believe that what you’re doing is worth all the negativity.
In addition to being the Executive Director, you’re also a full-time college student. How do you split the time between the two projects?
Well, I don’t get a lot of sleep for one thing because there’s always something to do. But I’ve gotten pretty good at time management and I prioritize what’s important when it comes to my planning. I have two planners and I have a couple of notebooks that I use for work and school so I usually block out time to focus on what I need to be doing. There are certain days where I’m like, ‘ok I need to sit down and I need to work on this campaign for Project Consent’ and there are some days where I’m like, ‘oh shoot, I have a test coming up so I need to study for that’. So, you know, just balance.
How would you describe the growth and impact that Project Consent has had so far?
In our first two years alone, we reached 11,000 followers on Instagram and that’s just one social media following. We triple our audience every single year so what we’re trying to broaden our audience from beyond United States into a global community. Right now, we’re currently trying to work with the United Nations and the part of the U.S. government on how to expand sex ed[ucation] around the world.
Have you seen positive changes or greater awareness of consent in your own community since you’ve started this Project?
I go to speaking events when I can where I talk to college students or high school students about the reality of sexual assault and how and why we should be talking about sexual education at such a young age. Because I think that education is the start to anything sexual. If we could just teach kids what is appropriate and what isn’t and they have the foundation that they grow up with, it kinda becomes ingrained. In the United States specifically, we have been working with middle schools on sex ed curriculums.
Is that all over the country?
Yeah, we work with different counties and we’re trying to expand our outreach.
I saw the #ConsentIsSimple campaign that Project Consent did with Juniper Park which shows consent using animated body parts very concisely. Where did you get the idea for the video campaign and why in particular did you choose that type of imagery?
Juniper Park approached me two Decembers ago and they said, ‘hey we really like the work that you’re doing and we have an idea for a campaign’. [With] the way we’ve seen that section be a topic that people have to dance around especially from an educational [lesson about] this is what’s appropriate and what’s not, we were tired of using metaphors like consent is like tea and consent is like bottled water. It’s really not that hard to talk to kids about what is and isn’t appropriate and we wanted to do it in a no bullshit, straightforward kind of way. And we think the videos did that. I mean, they are a little flashy, but I think they got people’s attention. Once we got people’s attention, we could really talk to them about hey this is what they represent and we shouldn’t have to sexualize these.
You touched on this earlier, but how do you deal with criticism, trolling, or backlash that you get from social media?
You definitely have to develop a thick skin. People are going to be mean no matter what. People are going to say mean stuff. I’ve learned that people are going to poke fun no matter what. And at the end of the day, we can either focus on that or we can focus on doing good to the communities around the world. You learn to tune it out after awhile.
Especially in our current political/social climate, there has been rhetoric and acts that undermine Project Consent’s mission. In what ways does Project Consent react to these events/situations?
I mean, sexual assault is a pretty nonpolitical issue and I will stand by that 100%. I don’t think that [changes] if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Moderate, or whatever you want to call it. Sexual assault is something that affects every community no matter what political party, and I would hope that under any kind of political administration they would talk about sexual assault respectfully and in a way that will bring about positive change.
What resources do you recommend that people view to further understand consent and combat rape culture?
Definitely educating yourself on it and if you see something wrong in your community, I think you should go out there and change it. Because as much as Project Consent would like to go out to every single state and every community to bring about positive change, that’s definitely not possible. We rely on our followers to be good people, call out rape culture when they see it, and to support survivors of sexual assault. Because I think that one person can make a lot of difference.
Are there any upcoming Project Consent plans or projects that you’re looking forward to?
Yeah! We definitely have a lot of campaigns rolling out and we’ll be making a press release in the next couple of months.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from Project Consent?
You can’t help everyone, but you can help somebody. And, like I said earlier, Project Consent can’t help every single survivor of sexual assault but we can do a lot for a lot of people. Having that mindset going forward, we want to try to help as many people as we can and we want to spread our message as far wide as we can. At the end of the day we’re hoping that it catches on and we hope that the people who follow us and support us will bring that to their own community. It takes an entire village to raise a child, so it takes a bunch of different people to change the world. And I think that’s possible.
Since this is our #BraveGirls issue, what does the word bravery mean to you?
I think the word bravery just means doing what’s hard but right. Because I don’t think it would be bravery if there wasn’t some kind of challenge. At some point, you have to make the choice between what’s right and what’s easy. When it comes to that point, everyone should do what’s right.
How can individuals be braver in speaking out or about stigmatized issues?
It’s definitely going to be hard speaking out against any kind of wrongdoing in society. So when you do, you have to keep in mind that there are people listening to you and one person has so much influence. Even if it’s just one person and you’re speaking out about something terrible, the people listening to you are going to get something from you so you’re setting an example. So I would say the best way to make a difference is by knowing that you’re doing what’s right and hold yourself to that standard.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Project Consent got to where it is [now] with the help from a lot of different people. It started initially way back in 2014, but it’s grown with the help from survivors, staff, and our partner organizations. The cool thing about Project Consent is that we got to where we are because there’s a group of people who believed in us and in a positive future. And without them, I think that the future would look pretty dismal. But the fact that we have so many people who want to make change is pretty optimistic to me.