Dispatch from Vermont: The bystander approach through a health promotion lens

Dear Engaged Bystander:  I’m all for the bystander approach and it seems as if the bystander strategy has taken a firm hold in the violence prevention field. I see many merits of the approach including reducing defensiveness in our conversations with men and boys, giving tools to address and interrupt problematic behaviors and attitudes on the spectrum of violence and empowering individuals to see themselves as part of a community response to violence.   Wherever we have tried using the bystander approach there have been important shifts in our communities towards holding perpetrators accountable and involving everyone in the role of keeping each other safe; both key elements in our movement’s work.
 
During this same time I have also seen the rise of a health promotion framework for violence prevention.   Health promotion strategies push our primary prevention efforts in a new direction. Instead of redirecting attitudes that may already be deeply entrenched away from violence and highlighting problematic behavior we don’t want to see, health promotion builds the vision of what we DO want.  Through health promotion, the core of our work becomes creating conditions that allow people to develop and nurture their sexuality. Through developing a deeper sense of understand and respect for their own healthy sexuality, I hope that people with develop a deeper respect for the diversity of expressions of others’, a respect that does not leave room for the perpetration of any form of sexual violence, abuse or harassment.
 
In Vermont we are about to roll out a statewide educational campaign around consent that uses a health promotion framework. There will be train the trainer programs where teams of adults, youth and youth serving organizations come together to learn and plan for how to bring the information back to their communities.   One key aspect of this campaign is the involvement of youth in both the planning and educational efforts. Another is developing tools and activities that work across the social ecological model.
 
It was here that we found a new blend of heath promotion with bystander strategies.   Within the Consent Campaign we offer tools and resources that encourage youth to become not just active bystanders who are ready to intervene, but youth who have an expectation that it is their responsibility to talk to their peers and share the information they gain around consent.   Many research articles tell us that youth are most influenced by their social peers and we have learned that the messenger counts for so much in youth relationships. We are using that basic concept and empowering the kids to take the conversation out of the classroom and to their friends. We should be talking about these things with each other.
 
We are encouraging the expansion of the bystander role: not just there to intervene, but also to educate and engage. This model of collaboration with youth keeps our prevention information alive, passing it from one to the next. Hopefully, as we increase the level of conversation happening around healthy sexuality we will help break down the veil of secrecy that keeps so many victims from seeking and receiving support as well.   By combining the bystander and health promotion approaches we build community capacity, expand our reach, and empower youth to become involved in our movement towards real social change.  
 
Bethany Pombar is the Prevention Specialist at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, where she has worked for 7 years.   She has a B.S. in Prevention and Community Development and lives with her family in the smallest state capital in the nation where there are no fast food chains and only two traffic lights.