NJCASA’s mission includes elevating the voices of service providers and communities.  We believe these voices will not only bring about social change, but create spaces for victims to thrive.  The ‘Partners in Prevention’ series will feature voices from throughout the state working to create safer communities for all.  Today’s post focuses on a local community college’s efforts to engage bystanders and community members in raising awareness and prevention power-based personal violence. 

During my time as a therapist, I saw the struggles that young adults faced.  Some struggled with not wanting to burden their friends with their experience of violence, but longing for support; others faced challenges in not knowing what to say or do when learning their friend was in an abusive relationship or had experienced a sexual assault, fostering feelings of guilt and remorse.  According to the World Health Organization, there is an impact on the exposure to violence and strained support that will lead to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

As the Coordinator for the Violence Intervention Prevention Center (VIP) at Bergen Community College, it is important to allow opportunities for the students’ voices to be heard.  VIP is dedicated to empowering students to contribute to the movement to prevent violence on campus, in their relationships, and in their community.  As part of a Service Learning Project, I had the great opportunity to work with a group of 25 Social Work students.  Their task was to develop a leadership project dedicated to bystander intervention.

Through the semester, we offered a Green Dot bystander intervention training and mentoring, and we organized a number of community discussions around power-based personal violence.  The students’ dedication to such an initiative was inspiring as many had time constraints due to their roles and responsibilities both on- and off-campus as is the reality of a commuter college.  In working with these students, the focus became on how they can spread the word that violence is not OK and that others can be empowered to safely take action when witnessing a potentially risky situation, whether it directly or indirectly impacts them.

This ability to take action remained a constant theme through the Leadership Project.  It was insightful to hear students candidly share their attitudes toward power-based personal violence in all forms, as well as norms around victim behavior and perpetrator accountability.  We were able to foster a deep understanding of gender roles and societal expectations through education and discussion on topics such as consent and how others’ judgment negatively impacts an assault victim.

Though there was an initial combined feeling of nervousness and excitement at the start of the project, the Social Work students developed into Peer Educators.  Some chose to collaborate with faculty and conduct in-class presentations on bystander intervention strategies to address interpersonal violence.  Others created flyers with resources and promotion of Green Dot, which were distributed on campus and through social media.  Regardless of the chosen method, each student found a way to become confident to engage others in the conversation of power-based personal violence, which is not an easy task.

Moving forward, this project has inspired VIP to develop a Campus Awareness Team (CAT), which will include student peer educators dedicated to violence prevention.  It is my hope that this will foster student allies, build leadership skills and awareness, and increase the level of support for those who may be in need.

Sonia Wadhwani is currently the Coordinator for the Violence Intervention Prevention Center at Bergen Community College.  She is a Licensed Associate Counselor in the state of New Jersey.  She is an active board member of the New Jersey Counseling Association.  Her current interests include the areas of advocacy, interpersonal relationships, leadership building, higher education needs, diversity and integrative interventions for the treatment of trauma.