Adama Iwu responding to questions at the Cambridge UnionChris Williamson

Ask Adama Iwu a question, and she will talk for seven minutes straight, barely pause to take a breath, and conclude: “Let me be clear: I don’t know.”

Generally speaking, people are not named Time’s Person of the Year by admitting to how little they know. Iwu’s activism, however, is not driven by answers. Looking back on 2017, Time magazine chose to celebrate ‘The Silence Breakers’, individuals who decided it was finally time to talk about the pervasive culture of sexual assault which has long polluted society. Iwu tells me that we cannot provide the solutions and dismantle the systems that keep survivors silent until we live in a society that “admits that these problems exist.” How to reach this point? “Have the uncomfortable conversations.”

It quickly becomes clear that Iwu had long been aching to start these conversations before she was called a ‘silence breaker’. The activist describes herself as quite simply “someone who has worked really hard for a really long time”, but working as a lobbyist in the California capitol for over a decade and becoming a government affairs expert for VISA in the Western states three years ago only made her more attuned to the prevalence of assault and harassment in U.S. government.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I was really furious – and I knew I wanted to do something.

Prior to her participation in a Breaking the Silence panel, she sits in the library of the Cambridge Union and speaks for minutes on end with unwavering gravity. She moves swiftly between the light-hearted and the solemn, between the personal and the political, and, for someone who talks of how much she does not know, is not for one moment fazed by my questions.

Most compellingly, none of this seems at all calculated. This perfectly encapsulates how Iwu, who laughs as she tells me that she has “led a relatively boring life to this point”, found herself on the cover of Time magazine alongside Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift. She begins, as if letting me in on a secret: “So, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I was really furious – and I knew I wanted to do something.”  

She continues: On the day following the release of a tape in which Harvey Weinstein is heard telling one of his victims that, as Iwu paraphrases, she didn’t want to “make him her enemy”, Iwu was sexually harassed at a political event. “This other schlub had the misfortune of choosing that night to sexually harass me,” she recalls, “and I was already on a slow burn because of [the tape], and so I was just like ‘you know what? Absolutely the fuck not. Not today Satan.’”

Over the course of two days, Iwu gathered 147 signatures from “women from all over the political spectrum” for the first open letter calling for an end to sexual harassment in US government, which swiftly went viral upon its publication in the LA Times. The move triggered the resignation of 4 Californian legislators and caused around 120 special elections across America in 2018 alone, but Iwu had never imagined its impact would go any further than creating a “chilling effect”.

“I had no idea of the kind of spotlight it would put me in – I would never had done it if I’d known that!”, she laughs, “I actually really like my job, I like my life – I had a good run, you know!” Though she states that she doesn’t regret the letter, she confesses that she “probably would have had someone else be the face of it, for sure.”

It is at this point I realise that Adama Iwu is probably the coolest person I am ever going to meet; but that is beside the point.

This other schlub had the misfortune of choosing that night to sexually harass me. I was already on a slow burn because of [the tape], and so I was just like ‘you know what? Absolutely the fuck not. Not today Satan.

I ask her what being “the face of” the movement has been like. “Um,” she pauses. “Yeah. I mean – it’s exhausting. It’s a lot, because now people come to me a lot with things that have happened to them. And, I will say, with the first few months I was just really not handling it well.” Now the organizer of the We Said Enough foundation, the non-profit organisation she co-founded with the intent to end harassment and discrimination, Iwu tells me that she has had to develop coping mechanisms. Time and time again, she must hear the worst of people she thought she knew, “and it’s – it’s really traumatising sometimes to think [of] that.”

But Iwu is acutely aware of this pattern. Bearing witness to the assault which catalysed her open letter was a group of male co-workers who did not intervene because they thought that, since she knew her harasser, she was fine. She recounts how she “lit them up” for this, telling them that “this is what sexual assault looks like. It’s not stranger danger, it’s this – it’s the guy you know.”

This dynamic is what makes it so much harder for survivors to come forward, and Iwu emphasises that it is far from unique to the political sphere: “There is enormous pressure on women in general to be able to ‘hang’ with the boys, drink with them, spend time with them, especially in the political realm – my whole career is based on my relationships with legislators.” This, Iwu believes, is where we need a shift in the culture surrounding assault. “The conversation needs to move from ‘x number of women are raped’ to ‘x number of men are raping women.’”


Mountain View

Analysis: Breaking the Silence must be substantiated

How to create this cultural shift? Public policy. Legislation, she states, is “critical” in driving public discourse, and is particularly pertinent to survivors of sexual assault who must feel that they understand the process into which they are entering when coming forward. “There needs to be an accepted process and trust in the system,” explains Iwu, citing steps such as passing whistleblower legislation to protect the accusers, but also ensuring protection for the accused. Her sympathy for the accused does not extend as far as ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, however. “You’re never gonna get there,” ‘there’ being beyond a reasonable doubt, “especially if there’s no rape kit – if there’s no physical evidence – how do you ever get there?”

The campus context of her work is certainly not lost on Iwu, who is well-versed in the Breaking the Silence campaign and notes that the data we have on sexual assault at Cambridge will always only be a fraction of the truth. So, I ask: “How far do you think student lobbying, in terms of sexual assault, can ever really go?”

Without missing a beat, Adama Iwu delivers an answer that brings the room to attention: “Oh, I think it has to go all the way. I don’t care who the dean or chancellor is; this is your university. What kind of place do you want this to be for the people who come after you? This is your university; you take it as far as you want it.”

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