Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, carries a mattress with her on campus as part of her protest and performance art piece. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The girl with the mattress leans her navy blue burden against the wall of her statistics classroom, then settles into a chair. The professor, pacing, does a double take when he runs into it, but doesn’t say anything. Her classmates barely glance up — they have a test Monday.

Raindrops accumulated during the walk from the student center to the School of Public Affairs building slip down the mattress’s plastic, bed bug-proof coating, puddling on the classroom carpet. The professor begins his lecture.

This girl with a mattress is not the one whose image has been all over magazine covers and Facebook feeds. That girl is Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student and performance artist who has been carrying her extra-long twin dorm mattress around campus since the beginning of the school year to protest the university’s response to her alleged sexual assault. The mattress project is Sulkowicz’s senior thesis as a visual arts major, one she’ll continue as long as the fellow student who she says raped her remains at the school.

This girl is not Sulkowicz, but she is fighting a similar fight.

Faith Ferber, a sophomore at American University, is one of hundreds of students across the country who organized a campus event for the “Carry That Weight Together” National Day of Action on Oct. 29.

American University students Kayla Eaton, Cindy Valentin and Faith Ferber toted a mattress through the rain for the “Carry that Weight” national day of action. (Photo by Liliana Zigo/AU Photo Collective / Liliana Zigo/AU Photo Collective )

The National Day of Action was inspired by Sulkowicz’s piece and coordinated by a cadre of college- and national-level organizations: a pair of Columbia student groups aimed at supporting Sulkowicz and changing campus policies on assault, anti-street harassment organization Hollaback!, and Rhize, a crowdfunding platform for political and social movements.

And, of course, by people like Ferber: savvy, mostly female student activists who saw Sulkowicz’s project — the chord it struck, the attention it has gotten — and thought, “my school needs that.”

Ferber first saw a video of Sulkowicz talking with Columbia’s student newspaper, the Daily Spectator, that made the rounds on Facebook in September. She is a staunch activist, someone who has called herself a “passionate feminist” since she was 15 and uses phrases such as “rape culture” and “empowerment” in casual conversation. This summer, Ferber helped organize a petition demanding that university administrators respond to a series of leaked e-mails in which fraternity members discussed drugging and raping female students. Ferber is an intern for the university’s sexual assault prevention coordinator and a co-founder of Students Against Sexual Violence, a club formed in response to the “Fratergate” incident.

When Ferber heard about the day of action, she volunteered the club to sponsor the event at American University.

“It’s our first event, so it’s a great way to get our name out there,” she explains on the day of the event, as she helps lug the mattress back toward the campus student center. “Today is really about awareness and solidarity with survivors. Afterward, we’re going to have a general meeting, and talk about a call to action.”

A call to action?

“Are we going to request a meeting with the board? Are we going to start a petition?” she asks. “We might come up with a list of demands. . . . It depends on what we think is necessary.”

It’s this attitude that distinguishes what Ferber is doing from Sulkowicz’s original project. Sulkowicz’s rules of engagement for her piece don’t include demands of her university. And although she is one of 23 students who have filed a federal complaint against Columbia, alleging violations of Title IX and the Clery Act, “Carry That Weight” isn’t tied to the outcome of that case.

In interviews, Sulkowicz has presented the project primarily as performance art: “Art pieces can include whatever the artist desires, and in this performance art piece it utilizes elements of protest, because I think that it is relevant to my life right now,” she told the Columbia Daily Spectator. “To me, it’s an endurance performance art piece.”

When Ferber carries a mattress, on the other hand, protest is her primary purpose.

“Obviously we’re here to support Emma and all survivors,” Ferber says. “But we wouldn’t be having this event if American didn’t have a problem, if we didn’t see something that needed to be changed.”

Art into activism

“What’s happening here is unique,” says Nato Thompson, chief curator at New York-based public arts organization Creative Time and frequent writer on the topic of political art. “I can’t think of another instance where a work of art has triggered a movement in this way.”

It’s not as though art has never been used for political purposes before. There were protest songs in the 1960s, the “Silence = Death” posters of AIDS activists in the ’80s.

But it’s rare, almost novel, for one person’s work to turn into a symbol for a movement. That Sulkowicz’s piece has been adopted so swiftly and effectively, he says, is a testament to both her talent and her timing. The potency of “Carry That Weight” is in part helped by the fact that college sexual assault is such a talked-about subject that even the White House and Department of Justice have made it a priority.

Sulkowicz and the anti-rape activists who have embraced her have another advantage over artists of the ’60s and ’80s: social media.

Both Thompson and Ferber first saw Sulkowicz’s Columbia Daily Spectator interview on Facebook (the YouTube video had been viewed a million times within a week of being posted). Facebook has also linked Ferber with her counterparts on other campuses: A friend from Ferber’s preschool sent her a message after seeing that she had joined an event for “Carry that Weight” — the friend was organizing an similar event on her campus and wanted to talk strategy.

Meanwhile, the women who gather in American’s student center on the National Day of Action scroll through their Twitter and Instagram feeds looking for photos marked with the hashtag #carrythatweight.

“Wow,” says sophomore Kayla Eaton (owner of the mattress being used for the day’s event) as she looked at images from the 500-person rally held at Columbia.

“It’s just very cool to be part of something this big,” she says.

For Ferber, the sense of connection is especially strong. She says she, too, is a survivor of sexual assault, a circumstance that lends Sulkowicz’s piece an extra degree of gut-wrenching resonance.

And that’s the other thing about the image of the girl with the mattress: It’s haunting, as Hillary Rodham Clinton put it in a September speech at the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum. It’s an expression of something so deeply intimate it feels almost inappropriate to look, but impossible to look away.

This fact is what makes the mattress such powerful art. But it is also what makes it a potent tool for protest.

“It’s not an image that colleges want to be associated with,” Ferber says. “And we have to hope that’s going to light a fire under their butts, because . . . negative media attention is sometimes the only thing that will push the university to start acting.”

In that effort, Sulkowicz is both an idol and a symbol. Eaton and Ferber refer to her as “Emma,” as though she were a friend from the quad, but they also gush about her courage, what an inspiration she is. When passersby ask them why they’re carrying a mattress, they wonder aloud how Emma would have responded. Shaking out their sore arms at the end of the day, they contemplate how Emma must feel.