Published: May 5, 2010
A fresh Fordham diploma in hand, a job at a trendy gallery in New York City and the world at her fingertips. So was the life of Stephanie Joson, a 2004 graduate of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC).
But her life took a sharp turn one night in August 2004, when she was kidnapped and raped walking home from a concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“It was a Sunday night a little before midnight, and it was about a 15-minute walk to my apartment. I knew it was late to be walking home, but I didn’t feel like waiting or paying for a car when I lived relatively close,” Joson said. “I wasn’t drunk, and I thought it would be fine if I took the busy streets to get home. But the moment I was at the block where my apartment was, a car pulled up and a man jumped out, grabbed me from behind and put me into the backseat. There was another man in the driver’s seat, and we drove away. It all happened so quickly and unexpectedly that the only thing I could do to react was scream.”
For a group of college students with New York City at their fingertips, walking home before midnight seems tame. But the events that unfolded for Joson were anything but.
“The man who had grabbed me stayed with me in the backseat and held my head down. We drove for a while and stopped at a bank. The man asked me for my ATM PIN, and I gave it to him; he then used my debit card to drain my checking account, leaving me with a few dollars,” Joson said. “We then drove and parked somewhere, and the two men raped me. When they were done, we started driving again, and for some reason it wasn’t until this moment that I fully realized that I was in serious trouble and could very well die. I think I had just been in shock the whole time up until this point. I was sure now that we were driving to some place where they could kill me and dispose of my body.”
Instead, the men returned to the block where they had picked Joson up a few hours earlier.
“I walked to my door with my head down, as instructed. They sped off, and that was that. It was nearly 2 a.m. at this point. After a few minutes at home trying to wrap my head around what had just happened, I called 9-1-1. I also called the friend whose band I had gone to see that night and told him what happened, and immediately he ran over to my apartment to see me before the ambulance came and brought me to the hospital.”
That friend was Brendan Kinetic, FCLC ’03, who had met Joson during their first year at Fordham, living on the same floor.
“I carried a good amount of guilt about this, and in retrospect felt so stupid that I hadn’t thought to call her a cab or offer to accompany her home,” Kinetic said. “I received the call while sitting at a bar with my girlfriend at the time. It was shocking to go from having a night out to being confronted by vicious reality.”
Kinetic quickly ran the few blocks to Joson’s apartment.
“We ran up to meet her and it was all very surreal, as it usually is in those situations. I hugged her as we waited for the ambulance and police to arrive, which took a shockingly long time,” said Kinetic.
“I remember sensing that she felt very conflicted, in that she wanted to be held and comforted but was also recoiling from human touch—understandably. In those initial moments things were calm, out of shock I suppose. After the police and ambulance had arrived and transported Stephanie to the hospital, a nauseating mixture of feelings arose—rage, helplessness, overwhelming sadness, desperation to do something, anything, to change it all.”
In the light of tragedy often comes the overwhelming desire for change, and Joson’s experience was no exception.
“In the two years [after the attack] I was mostly focused on putting what had happened behind me and trying to go about life as it had been before,” Joson said. “A few months after the assault, my friend Brendan told me that his friend Oraia had started RightRides, a volunteer-run service offering women a free ride home, and he said he was going to start volunteering. I thought the service was a good idea, but at that time, I wasn’t really interested in getting involved. While I knew it was important, I was hesitant to take part in anything relating to sexual assault or gender-based violence, as I was worried that memories of my experience would make it difficult for me or that I would be too emotional to help.”
It turns out that while Joson was recovering during the first few months following the attack, a Brooklyn resident and survivor of a sexual assault, Oraia Reid, was reading the newspapers and becoming increasingly upset over the string of assaults on young women in the Williamsburg area. Kinetic, a friend of Reid’s through the New York music scene, discussed the program with Reid in its early stages.
“We discovered that the attack on Stephanie had in fact been the catalyzing event in motivating Oraia to take positive action,” Kinetic said. “That summer there had been a worrying number of brazen sexual assaults in the Williamsburg area, of which Stephanie’s was perhaps the most depraved example. It had been covered, very poorly, in the Post, and when Oraia read the story, it was the last straw, so to speak.”
And out of Joson’s tragedy, RightRides was born, a volunteer-based program which provides free rides home to both females and members of the LGBT community on Friday and Saturday nights between 11:59 p.m. and 3 a.m., within designated areas in up to 45 NYC neighborhoods.
“I founded RightRides in direct response to an increase in assaults targeting women walking home late at night in Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the summer of 2004,” Reid said. “I lived and worked in these neighborhoods and until that summer, I never felt really unsafe in my community, and I’d walk home alone late at night all the time. I’m also a survivor and after reading about Stephanie’s assault (who I didn’t know at the time) I was so outraged and also so afraid. I felt incredibly compelled to do something and believed that by offering free, late-night rides home, that further assaults could be prevented. RightRides was operational within a month.”
While Joson was too emotionally vulnerable at first to join the RightRides initiative, as time passed Kinetic motivated Joson to particpate in the program as a way of healing.
“When Oraia and I realized this coincidence, I felt it would be good to somehow introduce Stephanie to RightRides. She was my guest to a RightRides anniversary fundraising [social] in SoHo, and I introduced her to Oraia. What’s great about RightRides is that it’s a positive, active response to a serious problem. I thought it would probably be good for Stephanie to see that.”
“While I was at the [RightRides function] I was really taken aback, in a wonderful way, by the warmth and positive spirit in the room,” Joson said. “Some volunteers received awards for their work and spoke about what RightRides meant to them, and I found it so inspiring. As we were leaving the social, I told Brendan that I was really moved by what I saw, and he said, ‘You know, Oraia started RightRides because of you.’ I couldn’t believe it! Brendan and Oraia had met right before she started RightRides totally by chance. I’m not really one to think about fate, but Brendan, Oraia, and I meeting is totally a case for fate if I ever saw one. Not long after the social, I started volunteering. I realized that if a stranger could take my experience and the experiences of so many other women and turn it into something so positive, I certainly could too. I first organized a benefit concert and then started volunteering as a navigator in the ride-home program.”
And while Joson’s perpetrators were never caught, she is now seeking justice in another way— by preventing others from becoming victims of the same crime.
“Working with RightRides has been an enormously positive influence in my life, and an integral part of healing from my experience,” Joson said. “Gender-based violence is just so deeply ingrained in societies that wanting to do something to change that can seem so daunting and futile. In a lot of ways, it has just become accepted as a way of life and the cost of being a woman, or gay, or transgender.”
Being a victim of this gender-based violence, RightRides serves as the outlet through which Joson has been able to fight back against her perpetrators and against gendger-based violence.
“I think being involved with RightRides has absolutely been helpful to Stephanie,” Kinetic said. “She lived through a horrible event and persevered due to the amazing strength of her own individual character, and it was positive to introduce her to a group of people with that same strength of character, many of whom have survived their own traumatic experiences.”
Beyond RightRides aiding in Joson’s healing process, it has empowered her to bring a tangible change to the community in which she lives.
“RightRides takes a huge step beyond just survival, to actively preventing others from having to survive such terrible events. It’s an empowering organization and I think Stephanie feels empowered being a part of it,” Kinetic said.
Joson said, “RightRides really empowers people to stand up and say, ‘We don’t deserve this violence, we don’t want it in our community, and we can work together to keep it out of our community.’ Taking people home because you want them to be safe, it’s such a simple, beautiful idea, and it is so inspiring and uplifting to see so many other people joining together because they want the same thing. That’s what I love most about RightRides, it has created this incredible community of people looking out for one another. It’s so simple that it’s truly radical, representative of communities really taking action to make change happen.”
Through her time with the RightRides program, Joson has become increasingly involved in the organization.
“I met Stephanie in 2006 when [Brendan] brought her to our annual benefit event, the Friends of RightRides Social,” said Reid. “She soon became a driving team volunteer and then also joined our Board of Directors in 2008. She is an incredible advocate for women’s and LGBT safety. Since I first met her, Stephanie has become more confident and we’ve also become close friends.”
“I became a board member in November 2008, and it has been really rewarding to take more of a leadership role in the organization. I’ve been volunteering in the ride-home service less often in order to focus on the board duties—fundraising, governance, promotion—but hope to get back into volunteering soon,” Joson said. “Being a driving volunteer is fun. I navigate while my boyfriend Brian drives, and we get to drive around in a Zipcar all night and meet great people. The riders are almost always so appreciative and just really in awe that the service exists. There’s a common misconception that RightRides is just for drunk people to get home from bars, which is not true. Yes, some of our riders are coming home from bars, but many of them are coming home from work at a restaurant or bar, or from simply hanging out at a friend’s place. Everyone deserves to get home safely.”
“90 percent of our riders are between 18 and 35,” Reid said. “We’ve driven nearly 3,000 riders home in the last five-plus years, so I’d say that the college-aged population is benefiting and utilizing RightRides. We have a lot of riders who work late night shifts in restaurants and bars, or they’re simply out with friends. We find that nearly 40 percent of our riders then become volunteers themselves, which underscores that this is a community-led and community-driven program.”
To get more information on the RightRides program and to learn about volunteer opportunities,