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Bystander inaction, be gone

Green Dot pilot program tries to shift cultural norms about violence and intervention

Posted: December 6, 2013 - 1:07am
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Jen Messina, the director of training and development for Green Dot, a program designed to mobilize communities for safety, speaks during a workshop on Green Dot in Alaska at Centennial Hall on Thursday.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Jen Messina, the director of training and development for Green Dot, a program designed to mobilize communities for safety, speaks during a workshop on Green Dot in Alaska at Centennial Hall on Thursday.

You see a man screaming at a woman and a child in public, and things look to be escalating toward violence. The woman uses her body to protect the scared child. You wonder if you should intervene, and if so, how? What do you do?

When participants at a Juneau workshop on Thursday were asked what would prevent them from intervening in such a scenario, the list was lengthy.

“Fear of him,” one woman said.

“I don’t want to make it worse for her and her kid,” another called out.

“Not knowing what to say,” a third person added.

Green Dot Director of Training and Development Jen Messina, who was leading the group, nodded in understanding. She was expecting those answers. In fact, the idea that everyone has barriers to action is one of the core concepts behind Green Dot, a program that encourages bystanders to end violence in their community.

“We assume everybody fundamentally has a positive role that they can play around this issue, that most people don’t want anybody to get hurt, that the only reason why they’re not intervening is because it’s really hard,” she said. “And if we give them realistic ways to get involved, they will.”

Messina and Melissa Emmal, the deputy director of Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC), a safe house in Anchorage, gave a presentation on Green Dot in Alaska during the last day of a state-sponsored summit on domestic violence and sexual assault prevention at Centennial Hall.

A small room was packed with about 20 service providers and experts in the field — public nurses from Kenai and Bethel, behavioral health clinicians from Unalaska, safe house and shelter directors, counselors from Fairbanks and representatives from Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium from Anchorage. Some were hearing of the program for the first time, while others have been clamoring to get Green Dot in their communities.

“We want Green Dot so bad,” said Nicole Songer, the director of Cordova’s Family Resource Center. “Green Dot is something that I have been fighting to get it in our community.”

“I am very hungry for Green Dot,” said Rebecca Peterson, of Akeela’s Gateway Center in Ketchikan. “I really believe in the program, I think it will work in Ketchikan very well.”

The prevention strategy was authored by Dorothy Edwards, Green Dot’s executive director and a psychologist who founded the University of Kentucky Violence Intervention and Prevention Center. It was initially developed at that college campus, grew from there and recently spread to Alaska when the state agreed to implement it as a three-year pilot program in five Alaskan communities: Homer, Kenai, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Prince of Wales and Bethel. The end of 2013 will mark the end of the pilot’s first year.

Messina explained to the group that a red dot marks any moment where someone contributes to violence. A green dot, in contrast, is any moment when someone “makes a choice that this isn’t OK with me,” she said.

“What we’re trying to do is really simple,” Messina said. “We’re going to generate enough green dots that we’re going to outnumber and displace the red dots, and when we do that, our rates of violence will come down.”

Given that many acts of domestic violence take place behind closed doors, most green dots are proactive efforts on parts of community members to express intolerance of violence. That can include messages on Facebook, tweets or some sort of message or quote in an email signature tagline.

The other kind of green dot is more reactionary, such as responding to scenarios such as the one described above.

Messina said some solutions to bystander inaction can be delegating the task of seeing if the woman (again, in the above scenario) is OK to someone else, such as a friend, family member or law enforcement officer. Another tactic is distraction by, for example, interrupting their conversation and asking for help with something like finding your car keys.

“There’s lots and lots of things that are real that get in our way (of acting),” Messina said. “The good news is no matter what makes it hard for you, there’s almost always something you can try.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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