Rationale for Change
This work often involves a paradigm shift that can be both disorienting and energizing. Reflecting on the deeper rationale and context can help us connect to the larger movement for change.
Family, friends, and neighbors are closest to the issue and can play a powerful role.
Often people who experience violence will share this experience with family, friends, or neighbors rather than with a service provider. In turn, those family, friends, and neighbors can provide people who experience violence with all kinds of direct support—by bearing witness, by holding those using violence accountable, by providing concrete support such as a place to stay, and more. Over the long-term, children’s resilience in the face of violence is increased by the presence of supportive adults in their social and kinship networks. Also, those using violence are often more responsive to social sanctions from family and peers than to legal sanctions. In addition to family, friends, and neighbors being powerful responders when violence happens, it is in these community networks that the social norms, power dynamics, and biases that perpetuate violence often exist. Equally, it is here that they can be transformed—making community networks all the more critical to prevention and social change strategies.
The current response does not have the capacity to meet the need.
In the US, the majority of funding related to domestic and sexual violence goes to crisis-intervention and service-oriented responses. For example, shelters provide a safe haven for those in immediate danger. Community-based services, such as rape crisis and health care centers, provide individualized clinical and legal advocacy as well as support groups. Specialized intervention programs engage those using violence in gaining insight into their own actions and learning alternatives. All of these services have provided invaluable support to those experiencing and using violence. However, in urban centers this prevailing response is stretched thin by ever-increasing rates of reported violence, as waiting lists abound for shelter beds, children’s support groups, and intervention programs. More broadly, staff are challenged by the complexity of the needs—feeling ill-equipped to provide effective assistance to people who experience not only violence but also profound and chronic poverty, intergenerational trauma, chemical dependency, and mental illness. Given the size of the problem, it is unlikely that the current service delivery model will ever have the resources to meet the need or create the change people are seeking.
Many people experience further injustice from the current response.
We know that many people do not seek help from formal service providers or people in positions of power due to fear, mistrust, or inaccessibility. Of those who do engage a formal agency, it is typically not a first choice, but a last resort. With few exceptions, the social service and criminal justice responses to domestic and sexual violence have failed to build inclusive community support and accountability. For example, current responses to violence are often not culturally appropriate or language accessible; do not respond to the leadership, strengths, or needs of communities; and often require those affected by violence to leave their communities, jobs, and schools. As a direct result, communities have been fractured by the institutional responses. These inadequacies are further exacerbated by the reality of racism in all systems, including the criminal justice and child protection systems. This racism results in over-incarceration and disproportionate removal of children from immigrant communities and communities of color, and creates yet another barrier for building community and engaging with existing services.
The current response distances community members from their capacity to lead change.
By relegating power and responsibility to professionals reacting to violence after it happens, the system often leaves community members without the resources and tools for preventing violence before it starts. Since the current response emphasizes calling experts for help and seeking safety away from community, few people experience their own agency in change and few people experience community as a resource for change. Even the majority of prevention strategies in the US—often curriculum or awareness based—do not engage community members in shaping solutions, playing a leadership role, or integrating the prevention of domestic and sexual violence into community life and decision-making processes. This means people with passion for and connection to the issues are rarely called upon to lead.
Domestic and sexual violence are issues that affect everyone.
Domestic and sexual violence have profound physical and emotional consequences for those who experience or witness violence, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. There are also consequences that reach far beyond. For example, domestic and sexual violence significantly impact a community’s economic and social vitality, due to the costs of health care and crisis response systems, as well as the barriers and safety issues that can prevent those experiencing violence from attending work and participating in civic life. There is also an impact on youth development, as children who live with domestic and sexual violence may have greater challenges in school as well as difficulty forming healthy relationships with peers, teachers, and other potentially supportive adults in the community.
Among these consequences and others, one of the most profound and far-reaching is how the silence that surrounds domestic and sexual violence limits community members’ ability to connect honestly and fully with each other. A community cannot truly thrive if its members live in fear of the violence occurring in their homes, in their relationships, and in their neighborhoods. When community members are isolated by shame, fear, and the impact of trauma, people’s opportunities for friendships and other community connections are limited. Young people’s social development is hampered, because it is not safe to participate in school activities, at community centers, or to invite friends to their own homes. All of this affects the social cohesion of a community and can stymie organizing and community building efforts.
Lasting change relies on all aspects of community life.
In many areas, there are community-building initiatives that focus on the public and civic life of a community, such as revitalizing economic health, youth development, voter registration, and green space. Domestic and sexual violence prevention is often left out of these community-wide efforts due to it being cast as a private and individual concern. However, the root causes of domestic and sexual violence are embedded in social norms, which live in all aspects of a community.
Widespread change of social norms requires engagement of individuals, family, friends, and neighbors as well as engagement of civic life and social services. When this is happening, new conversations and behaviors take place on neighborhood front steps, at the doctor’s office, at school, on the soccer field, on the radio, in political offices, and more. This kind of community engagement is different from people being passive recipients of awareness raising. Here, everyone is creating new strategies and messages and putting them into action.
People want to engage differently but remain disconnected from each other.
Community members are asking what they can do about violence. They want to know how they can prevent domestic and sexual violence from occurring. They want to know what to say and do if someone close to them is directly affected. In many ways, the community is our largest and most untapped resource. At the same time, service providers are feeling the constraints of limited resources and recognizing the need for proactive solutions. More and more of them are seeking tools for engaging with community members to co-create the way forward. It is time to bridge the divisions and power dynamics that diminish community engagement efforts. With equal respect for everyone’s wisdom and everyone’s capacity to shape and lead change, we must all proceed with the understanding that a truly collaborative effort, with a bold vision anchored in social change and community leadership, is a critical part of the way forward.