Participants walk one mile in high heels along West Cliff on last Saturday as part of Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, a national march to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence. Photo by Chelsea McKeown

As a string of morning joggers passed by, over 200 locals clacked around the pavement in high heels waiting to “walk a mile in her shoes.”

The event was held on April 21. Walk a Mile in Her Shoes is a national, annual mile-long march that aims to raise awareness about sexual assault and support survivors.

Surrounded by signs asking, “Are you man enough to walk in her shoes?” several who had forgotten their footwear crowded around a table purveying last-minute stiletto options.

This is the second Walk hosted in Santa Cruz since the national tradition began in 2001. The Women’s Crisis Support Defensa De Mujeres center (WCSDDM) organized the event with co-sponsors Bay Federal Bank, Janus Rehab clinic, and Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women (CPVAW).

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness month. According to the U.S. Health Department, one in four women are victims of sexual assault and someone in the U.S. is raped every two minutes.

“Sexual assault is not just a women’s issue — this is a men’s issue too,” said CPVAW coordinator, Kathy Agnone. “[Rape] affects everybody. We actually have a male leading [the march] to help bring in more allies.”

With a suggested sponsorship amount of $100, the walk also functioned as a fundraiser. Like many local charities and community outreach centers, WCSDDM fund development director Kalyne Foster said the organization has incurred a steep cut in state funding in recent years.

“Just two years ago, we relied completely on state funding,” Foster said. “The cuts [to our state funding] have made some of our programs almost impossible. My job is basically dedicated to getting more individual donations.”

Many participants donned a specially-designed glossy red, four-inch “men’s stiletto,” completing the look with calf socks. Some, however, went the extra mile.

Rick Creighton said he “wanted something sturdy where [he] wouldn’t end up calling the fire department”.

Rick Creighton wears his homemade stilettos during the march. Photo by Chelsea McKeown

Creighton took his own sneakers, nailed them to the wood of an old fence post, and covered the ensemble with red sequins and glitter paint.

“I couldn’t find a size-16 shoe, they just don’t make them for women,” Creighton said. Already standing at six feet tall, DIY stiletto-clad Creighton towered over the crowd.

At 10 a.m., participants shuffled up West Cliff and doubled back at David Way, holding signs with statistics about sexual violence and slogans to show their support for survivors of assault.

After a moment of celebration by those who made the full mile without removing their heels, the event took a sobering turn.

“The great thing about this event is that it’s a very fun and lighthearted way to open up a discussion about a very serious issue,” said WCSDDM vice president Anna Rubalcava to the audience.

Rape survivor and sexual assault response team (SART) nurse, Michelle, who only stated her first name, shared her story with the marchers.

At 17 years old, Michelle was raped, beaten and nearly killed in San Jose.

“I don’t want pity, and I find that’s often what I get … there should be no shame, no fault for victims of rape,” Michelle said.

Michelle said the support network of her friends, family and local advocacy workers helped get her through the forensic exam, court proceedings — including witness testimony — and therapy.

She went on to say that her attacker has been released and detained several times, and that he currently lives 34 miles away from her home. She said she no longer lives in fear, thanks to all the advocates who helped her reclaim her strength.

“But I realized … it’s he who should be afraid, not me,” Michelle said.

Foster said this year’s march participation doubled in size from last year.

“It is a really great way to inform the community,” Foster said. “We must understand that it is a community problem, not an individual one. That is why we do both prevention and community outreach together.”

The Women’s Commission for Violence Prevention is hosting more awareness activities this month, including a presentation on April 30 about “Engaging the Bystander,” aimed at helping people respond to unfolding assault.

During the end of the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, Foster ushered all of the WCSDDM workers and volunteers to the stage.

“These are the people,” Foster said, “who work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for people at their darkest hour.”