Awareness isn’t enough

T.J. Sullivan has spoken to more than 2-million students on campuses in all 50 states. He is the co-founder and CEO of CAMPUSPEAK. Visit or his personal site at

Awareness isn’t enough. Sometimes you gotta kick some ass.

Ten years ago, a young recent college graduate approached me.  She had seen me speak at Eastern Illinois University, and she wanted to be a speaker, too.

Erin Weed’s friend and sorority sister, Shannon, had been murdered in her off-campus apartment.  Like many who experience a tragedy, Erin felt a call to action.  She saw the impact of Shannon’s murder on her entire campus community, and believed something had to be done to respond.

At first, I assumed Erin wanted to speak about the horror of the murder so that she could create awareness of sexual assault and violence for college women. While an admirable goal, it would hardly be innovative.  There are lots of folks who experience something tragic and then seek to tell the story.

As the owner of a new, fledgling college speakers agency, I was fielding inquiries from folks like Erin on a pretty regular basis. While always encouraging, I knew that not everyone has the talent or ambition to effectively speak to college students.

But, Erin quickly made it clear that she had more on her mind than talking.

Erin had made a significant investment of time, effort and money to become an expert in self-defense. She knew how to take a bad guy down, and she was ready to show college women how to fight back.  Appropriately, she had founded a project called Girls Fight Back to begin training women at colleges and high schools, and her regular pitch line was: “Because there’s nothing more dangerous than a pissed off woman.”

Erin is attractive, smart, direct, and funny. She knew the power of social media way before most.  It was easy to tell that Erin had the passion and the talent to really change the conversation about sexual violence on campus.  While others were scaring women into carrying mace in their purses, Erin was choosing empowerment over fear.

And while Shannon’s tragic murder informed the mission of Girls Fight Back, it wasn’t the focus.  She wasn’t showing slide shows with plaintive music.  She focused on the young women in the audience – what they needed to know to make themselves less vulnerable to an attack.  Women were leaving her sessions smarter and more confident.  They were leaving with skills they didn’t have before they came in the door.

It took me less than a day to decide I wanted to help make that happen, and our conversation turned into a partnership that brought Girls Fight Back to hundreds of thousands of young women.

Ten years later, the differentiation between awareness alone and awareness paired with action informs the way I evaluate potential speakers for our company.  While awareness is important, it is so much more powerful when you put tools in people’s hands, show them how to use them, and encourage a culture in which people believe in the potential for change.

Girls Fight Back is an excellent example for all programs aimed at college students (and younger).  Don’t just tell them about the problem.  Give people what they need to tip the equation in favor of a positive outcome.

You can’t win a game with defense alone.  You have to teach some offense.

Happy birthday, Girls Fight Back, and congrats to Erin for all the lives she has touched with this remarkable project.

Note from Erin: Thank you T.J. for giving me a shot at speaking, as a 23-year-old punk! There’s a reason we posted you first…it’s because you saw the potential of GFB even before I did.  Thank you for being a business comrade, a partner and a friend all these years. And P.S. – Today is his birthday so send him some warm wishes!

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