It’s 6:35 on a rainy Monday morning. I, along with 40 others, have been practicing hard, sweaty yoga in 100+ degree heat for fifty minutes in a small room with no windows. We have finally reached the point in class where our beloved teacher, Tara, is allowing us to take our first restful pose. There are only ten minutes left of class; I can almost taste the coffee I will indulge in the second I can get out the door. As Tara invites us into child’s pose, she dims the lights, and announces that there’s something she needs to say to all of us while we are faced down. It’s important to note, that in my decade of practicing yoga, I have never met a teacher as popular as Tara. She has an incredibly devoted following, and folks drive from all over to make it into her sweaty, powerful classes. She has supported many of us, myself included, through painful life experiences. Her classes are always packed, and yet she makes each individual person feel heard, seen, and powerful. So, when she says that she has something she needs to say, everyone is listening. We trust her and we are invested in what she has to say.
With our eyes closed, sweat pouring off our bodies, we hear her voice loud and clear say to us, “I need to address the anti-Semitism that I have heard and witnessed happening in this community. In this very room. I need to address it and I need all of us to call it out when we see and hear it and send the message that this will not be tolerated in this community.” As she continues to speak, a voice in my head whispers softly, “This is what prevention looks like.”
Despite the fact that violence seems more pervasive and prevalent than ever before in my lifetime, I’ve noticed that violence prevention has felt more possible, more accessible, and more real. After spending almost two decades of my life leading trainings and classroom presentations, I’ve come to realize that prevention work rarely- if ever- happens in the classroom. The work we do in these settings helps participants acquire knowledge about domestic and sexual violence and develop skills to have healthy relationships. But it’s what happens after our workshops that is the real work. How each individual chooses to utilize those skills, and how that knowledge can shift their attitudes and beliefs and behaviors- that is up to them. Our job is to communicate this information in such a way that they feel intrinsically motivated to enact change. Our goal is that they leave the classroom or workshop not only knowing that we care about domestic violence and we want them to do something about it, but also feeling connected and caring about the issue and wanting and knowing how to do something about it.
When volunteers start our 40 hour training, they often come back the second or third night and share that something they learned in training inspired them to talk to a loved one. By the end of training, many talk about how they have used the skills they practiced with us in their personal lives in a variety of situations and settings. Often through these volunteers, we are invited to facilitate workshops or support programming in their communities- their own places and spaces such as their workplace, schools, churches, etc. Their friends and family come to our events; they may even decide to volunteer with us, as well.
What we see after training is a framework that many of us use, called the social-ecological model of change. It’s a fancy way of describing a ripple effect. When one individual is motivated to deepen their knowledge and build their skills, it often impacts their relationships. As their loved ones see the passion and excitement about this topic, they may also seek out ways to deepen their own knowledge and skills. Together, they may start to think of ways that their community can promote healthy relationships and address relationship abuse. As a member of their community, they also have an important perspective about what unique strengths and barriers their community possesses to do that. As this group of individuals begins to make changes within their community, it will often impact the societal factors that impact those strengths and challenges- factors like laws, social norms, and policies.
The motivation to act is often connected to relationships- when someone we care about cares about this issue, we feel connected to and through them. When the lessons we share in the classroom are then talked about in hallways, on soccer fields, in the car, and at home, those conversations are happening between people who care about each other. In those spaces, the message is heard in a different way than when it was delivered by a stranger, even though people often think otherwise (i.e. here is the expert coming in to share knowledge- people will definitely listen to them) A few years ago, I led a workshop on how to talk to your kids about healthy relationships. Several of the parents asked if I could come to their house and talk directly to their children (more than one even asked if I would move in). While the offer was kind, and while I do love talking to young people, I reminded them that it was what they as parents said and did that would have the biggest impact on their child(ren). If I did come to their house, their children may be interested in what I had to say for the time that I was with them. But if that conversation ends there- if the messages I shared with them are not continued or supported or modeled in other areas of their lives, what is to keep them motivated to learn, do, or act differently?
Prevention work is accountability work. It requires each of us to look inward and ask ourselves difficult questions. It forces us to face into, rather than away from, uncomfortable truths about how intimate partner violence, and the culture that supports it, impacts ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our society. It demands that we no longer remain silent when we are faced with uncomfortable situations where we can use our voice and enact change. It compels us to model accountability to the people who are closest to us, because they will be more willing to listen.
Accountability can take many different forms. Although bystander trainings often focus on intervening during acts of physical or sexual violence, it is rare that we see these acts being actively perpetrated. More often, we see rape culture in action through more subtle actions and language, often under the guise of humor. We all want to believe that we would “do the right thing” and intervene in a high stakes situation like assault. But many of us struggle to know how- and if it’s okay- to intervene when the behavior we witness feels more low-stakes in its impact, but feels more high stakes in how we will be perceived for intervening. If a friend or coworker tells an offensive joke at lunch, what do we do? We often talk ourselves out of saying something, convincing ourselves that it wasn’t really that bad, that we are overreacting, that we would’ve made the person we care about uncomfortable by calling them out. It is also important to note, that when the hurtful joke or language used is directed at or about us, we often don’t feel like we have a choice, and we wish others would take the burden of calling out our oppressors off of our shoulders.
As I listened to my beloved yoga teacher calling on all of us to hold each other accountable for keeping our community a safe space for everyone, I was listening to her both as a preventionist and as a Jewish woman. She was naming a truth about my community that I didn’t want to believe, and she was also holding herself and the rest of us accountable for changing it. She is respected and admired in her community- her words and actions are seen and felt by many. She was using her position of power and her relationship with us to deliver this message. It rippled through us individually and collectively. And she did this, in under five minutes, before 7am. So I ask each of you reading this- what motivates you to create change in your life? Who looks to you for guidance? What are the messages you are promoting, through your actions and words, whether intentionally or without meaning to? How can you help to spread this message of accountability in your workplace, faith community, and home?