Summer camp

Imagine yourself as a teenager. Now imagine spending three days with your mom at a conference on teen dating violence and healthy relationships.

Yeah…we just did that.

Here’s the set-up: so you know how we haven’t figured out how to end domestic violence? Well, a lot of us are hoping the younger generation will get this whole abuse mess straightened out. The theory is that helping young people develop skills for healthy relationships and healthy sexuality will go a long way towards ending violence.

Only one problem: what do we actually do or say to help teens develop those skills? Lots of folks have been trying lots of things, but the truth is we haven’t figured it all out yet. We sometimes (er, often) don’t even know what to say to our own teens. 

So, we pulled some domestic violence advocates and their kids together for a little summer camp.

Three days later, what can I say? I was part of an incredible experiment. We laughed, we cried, we gave free hugs. My heart is still warmed.

What stood out for me:

  • These moms love their kids. I mean, really love them. And these moms have experienced and seen so much suffering, so much abuse, that all they want to do is create a big bubble to keep their kids safe from harm forever and ever. And…they recognize that they can’t do that. They have fancy theories about violence against women and how pop culture can be a bad influence, and they’re trying hard to talk about all this in a way that’ll actually help their kids.
  • Teens, on the other hand, get it (for the most part). They understand the difference between abusive, oppressive behavior in video games and TV shows vs. how humans are supposed to treat one another. And they don’t want to act like jerks. But they do want to have fun, and they don’t want to spend all day talking about violence. A little conversation about these topics goes a long way with teens.

Now I’m back in my office with the happy realization that teens are already on board for doing violence prevention work―and the even better news is that they’re hipper, more creative, and more tech savvy than we are. They will take the baton and run with it. It’s up to us to pass it to them, even if we feel worried about letting go.

Dude, WTF?

Alright – can we all agree that domestic violence is not going away until abusers knock it off? So the bazillion dollar question is, how do we make that happen?

I think we could create a lot of change by simply challenging abusive behavior when we see it. But some people get nervous, hesitant about how to confront an abuser. And for good reason. I’m not saying you should put on a superhero suit and wrestle the knife out of his hand. I’m not even talking about physical violence. We need to call people out way before things escalate to that point. I’m saying notice and comment on the creepy, possessive, controlling stuff your friend says or does: convey a sense of alarm; describe the bad/worrisome behavior; and tell the person to stop. It’s that simple.

Give one of these a try:

Dude, WTF? She’s a person, not a piece of property. Knock it off and give her some space!

Dude, WTF? She’s not screwing someone else – she’s just stuck in traffic, like she said. Sheesh, you need to knock it off!

Dude, WTF? You’re totally Facebook stalking her. Knock it off.

Dude, WTF? Just enjoy your visits with your kids and don’t worry about what she’s doing. Knock it off and move on.

… And the revolution starts in the stands, too

I’m not much into sports (unless “So You Think You Can Dance?” counts), but this report caught my ear while stuck in traffic.

Sports commentator Art Thiel weighs in on Rick Welts, president of the Phoenix Suns, and his recent decision to reveal that he is gay. Welts is the first high-profile sports figure to do so. I was happy to hear Thiel call this out as a positive step toward expanding views about masculinity in the professional sports community.

As we’ve seen, everyone loses when we confuse cockiness, violence, and the rampant pursuit of sex (consensual or not) for athleticism and sportsmanship. But while it’s exciting to see this shift in the sports world, Thiel reminds us that the real change depends upon all of us.Basketball wins my heart again

He invites all sports fans to stand up for authentic sportsmanship. In the stands we can respond to hateful trash talk by following Thiel’s simple advice. Let folks know: “I don’t need to hear that. My kids don’t need to hear that.”

What if this was your son?

“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” — Eleanor Roosevelt

A national resource defines bullying as, “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Often, it is repeated over time and can take many forms.” Experts say kids bully because they want to establish a social order, obtain dominance and power, or have control over group membership.

Whoa. That is eerily similar to our movement’s understanding of domestic violence. I guess it’s no surprise that different kinds of violence have similar motives. As I scan through some of the current research on bullying, I see that some of the most common intervention programs, like zero tolerance policies and peer to peer mediation, are now being discredited. It turns out that just as with domestic violence, there are no simple answers on how to get a bully—or a batterer—to knock it off.

And how can there be a simple answer?

Take the recent news story about a father who is facing felony child abuse charges after he was caught on video cheering his teenage son during a fight with a schoolmate who had been bullying him. The father and mother said things got worse after they sought help from the school, and their son eventually came to believe that fighting back was his best option. While the father regrets encouraging his son to “smash [the other boy’s] head into the ground,” he is relieved that after the fight, the bully agreed “to be done.”

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So, wow. This family believes that vigilante violence was the best solution for their son.  And while we know that boys especially are socialized to both be dominant and fight back against domination, I’m not convinced that street-fighting is the big solution we’ve all been looking for.

There must be more options for dealing with bullying besides “make the school deal with it” or “duke it out.”

So how did this get worked out in the social circles you were part of as a young person? Was there a way to stop bullying, dominating behavior without resorting to violence?

Who’s losing if Charlie is winning?

No you can't be Charlie Sheen for Halloween!
Steve Breen for the San Diego Union-Tribune

I can’t believe it took an 8.9 magnitude earthquake to shake us out of our bizarre fascination with Charlie Sheen.

I don’t want to be yet another person talking about him. But as Jacob Weisberg said, “while I am not much interested in celebrities, I am extremely interested in why other people are so interested in them.”

Suffice it to say that I’m not a fan of the way he’s treated women over the years. But as the media frenzy has unfolded over the last few weeks, I’ve become especially alarmed to see folks within my circle of friends showing admiration for him – rooting for him like he’s some kind of underdog and proudly wallpapering their cell phones with him.

It has forced me to ponder: What is up with us? Why are we so attracted to someone like Charlie Sheen?

Maybe we’re vicariously enjoying his self-indulgent disregard for all the usual rules and boundaries that constrain our lives. And I’m not saying  it’s wrong to hedonistically pursue one’s own interests. But as blogger Melissa McEwan often states, “my rights end where yours begin.”  You can buck the establishment and carve out your own path without being callous, arrogant, and abusive towards women.

So what does it say about us that we give him so much attention? And what messages are we giving young people about which behaviors get rewarded? If Charlie Sheen is winning, then he’s right: the rest of us are losing.

Advocacy for rookies

A few weeks ago, our final fatality review report pointed out that most people victims turned to for help did not refer them to a domestic violence advocate.

We know that advocacy saves lives.

We also know that domestic violence programs cannot keep up with the demand for services.

And we know that people turn to family and friends long before they seek help from professionals.

As Traci said earlier, we’re all counting on YOU.

If that makes you nervous – never fear. I just finished teaching at our 3-day Advocacy for Rookies training. It was heartening to learn that many of the attendees have no intention of getting a job as an advocate. They came to the training because they know that anyone can be a critical, life-saving source of support. Here’s how:

1.      LISTEN. Really listen. What is she saying she needs? What does she think will help? (Note: Hear what she is really saying, not what you think she should be saying. For many people, the goal is to end the abuse, not necessarily to end the relationship.)

2.      LEARN. Do a little research on her behalf. Call your local domestic violence program and find out what they offer. And there’s tons of great info online. You can read up on legal and economic options. Get the scoop on housing and employment issues. See what the laws and policy manuals say.

3.      LOOK AHEAD. Talk with her about long-term plans for coping with the abuse. Help her think through the pros and cons of different options and anticipate how the abuser might react. That’s called safety planning.

4.      LEVERAGE. Give her whatever help you can: a ride somewhere, free babysitting, some cash. And use your influence to let the abuser know that controlling and violent behavior is unacceptable.

5.      LOVE. Have compassion. See the victim’s (and abuser’s) full humanness. Be patient and humble – this stuff is complicated. We are all responsible for each other. Love is the antidote.

New Year’s Resolution

Lately, I’ve been ruminating about sound bite messages – those short, memorable, repeatable phrases that say a lot in a few words.

Sound bites remind us how to be safer on the roads, like Click It or Ticket. And thanks to Michael Pollan’s brilliant brevity, we know to eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

We live in a sound bite world, which is rather unfortunate for those of us working to end super- complicated problems like abuse and rape. We haven’t yet developed clear-cut, resonant phrases to describe how to have loving, safe, and fair relationships.

I loathe seeing complicated issues reduced to sound bites, but why shouldn’t we use strategies that have been proven to work? I recognize that brevity reigns supreme, so it’s my New Year’s Resolution to hop on the sound bite bandwagon.

But where to start?

Google “healthy relationship” and you get pages and pages of text. I’m looking for a handful of short phrases: a to-do list for our daily lives that will move us in the direction of cooperation, liberation, true love.

I’m only on day 4 of my resolution, so I haven’t any brilliant Pollan-esque slogans to offer. I know it’s a tall order, but anyone have an idea?

What happens now?

photo by fibonacciblue

It’s a week after mid-term elections, and I have to say I’m still feeling the sting. Facing a colossal gap in our state’s budget, our ballot was filled with strategies to bring in some new money. Voters said no. Now our state and local governments will have to make devastating cuts to critical services.

I’ve always thought of taxes as a good thing – membership dues I gladly pay in exchange for a vast array of services (running water, meat I’m not afraid to eat, civil rights, cancer research, and so on). But others hold a different view, and now we shall see what happens when government must do less with less.

My thoughts naturally turn to my own work. And not just selfish ruminations about whether or not I’ll still have a job (though as the mother of a child with many special needs, income and health insurance are indeed big concerns). Rather, I worry – and wonder – what will become of the work: the work to end domestic and sexual violence. Over the last few decades,  our government has increasingly funded efforts to support victims and stop abuse and rape. I am proud that we the people have invested tax dollars in what used to be considered a private problem.

But now the variables have changed again. Our great radical experiment to create a world of loving and equitable relationships will need some new strategies. We the people can no longer rely as much on our government to take care of this for us. So what happens now?

What an anti-violence expert learned from the BBC

After ten years of working against domestic violence, I was fairly sure I “got it.” Then something really crazy happened to me: doctors found a gigantic tumor in my six-month-old baby daughter’s head.

It was a rare, aggressive cancer. She went through brain surgery, intense chemotherapy and radiation. We spent six months in the hospital and even traveled across the country to get what she needed.

We referred to the whole ordeal as the “BBC” (Baby with Brain Cancer), believing that something as ridiculous as childhood cancer deserved a ridiculous nickname.

When I came back to work, I began to see the experiences of abused people in a new light and saw many parallels to my experience:

When your intimate partner is abusing you:

And/Or

When your child is diagnosed with cancer:
  • It is unexpected, devastating and totally inconsistent with your dreams and desires
  • You have to make some tough decisions when all of your options are pretty crappy
  • You need your family, friends and community more than ever
  • It’s hard to concentrate on anything else when lives are on the line
  • In shelters and hospitals: sharing space with strangers and dealing with institutional rules is a drag
  • Money makes a huge difference

I did notice one key difference: Our family got oodles of sympathy and tangible support, and virtually no one questioned our choices. But what I have seen in my work is that many survivors of abuse get the opposite reaction. The experiences are similar; the stakes are equally high, but the response tends to be a lot less supportive. Why is that?

P.S. My daughter is currently showing no evidence of disease. But just like survivors of abuse, the fear of what might happen still lingers.