It’s Not Just the What, It’s the How


This blog is written by Molly Pistrang-Gomes, the Youth Education Specialist at REACH. Molly works with middle and high school students to foster healthy relationships and prevent intimate partner violence. February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM) and we took this time to ask Molly for some of the things she thinks about when working with teens. 

This summer, many schools re-focused and asked questions: how can we be an anti-racist institution? What is our role as educators? How does our identity impact the work we do? What do we do? How do we do it? What is the purpose of education?

As a white woman and youth educator, it is my responsibility to examine how my power and privilege impacts the way students are able to engage in our work together. When training adults, working with survivors, or teaching in a classroom, we focus not just on what we do, but how we do it. But how do we do it?

While working at educational nonprofits before coming to REACH, I heard various messages of “this is the right answer” or “these are the correct measures of success.” In graduate school, I read academic articles that claimed expert knowledge- some version of “objective” truth. But who determined those measures of success? Whose truth were they telling? Who could say they had all the right answers?

As an educator, parent, friend, coworker, or human being, we sometimes feel like we need to have all the answers, especially when we’re supporting a young person in our lives. We feel that there is ONE right answer. Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when things are so uncertain, it can feel grounding to hear that there is a correct way of doing something. Feeling the need to have an exact answer can be a trauma response and also a coping mechanism that helps us survive. Insistence that there is only one right way is also a characteristic of white supremacy culture. Organizations like Project Evident  and the Organizational Equity Practice at Trinity Boston Connects teach the idea that there is not “one right way,” but multiple truths and perspectives. Strength lies in collaborative decision making. There is no one person in charge of knowledge, or one creator of knowledge. We are all co-creators.

When I go into a classroom, I don’t say “this is right or wrong” or “this is definitively healthy or unhealthy.” In a relationship trading cards activity, students sort personal traits (i.e. respectful, artistic, possessive, etc.) into categories of healthy, unhealthy, and depends/ preference. However, we focus most of our discussion on the words we’re not sure of- the ones we don’t know which category they fall under. The goal of the exercise is to build skills of how to analyze, examine, and interpret the way we treat and are treated by others. In a relationship, we’re not dividing words into lists, but considering “how does this make me feel? How often does this happen? What form does this take? Why did I do this? Why did they do that? What are the consequences of these behaviors?” We examine not just the intention of a behavior, but the impact. To me, healthy relationship education is about helping young people build the skills to ask themselves these questions once they’ve left the classroom.

That’s what I think about (or one way we can think about education; it’s the application of knowledge. Knowledge is powerful when we use it, and when we know how to use it. It’s tough whether we are working in the field of domestic violence or when a young person we care about comes to us for help. As adults, as family, as educators, as advocates, we often want to fix a situation. Sometimes I feel bad when a teen asks me for advice and I give them options instead of a quick answer. I ask them questions like “what do you think is best for you? Have you shared this with anyone else, and if so, whom? What resources do you already access to? What have you already been doing to keep yourself safe?” Maybe it could feel easier if I said “do x, y, and z,” but I don’t actually know what’s best for them. They know their own experiences and identities- they are the experts in their own realities.

I remind myself that helping a young person is not about giving them the correct answer, but asking and modeling questions so they feel confident and able to make decisions for themselves, if they face a similar situation again. We may not be there beside them the next time, but by helping them build skills, they will have the ability to make a choice that is theirs, that speaks their multiple truths, and that gives voice to their own, unique power.