What is Water?
Dear Engaged Bystander: Do you think about what a difference the environment can make to ensure safety for all of us? How an organizational culture keeps children safe. Or a college culture is why women can feel safe going out at night? Most of us who work in this field talk about these concepts all of the time. Yet I find that others look at me with this blank stare. I think that it is often hard to see what needs to change in our environment when it is simply the world you have known your whole life.
I recently heard about a great lecture titled, “What is Water?” that provides the perfect story to explain this phenomenon. David Foster Wallace began his talk with this story: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Unless we are tuned into a specific issue, it is hard to feel and see the various factors that we live with day in and day out. Yet they have a huge impact on our lives every day.
I was at a conference recently and heard a story from a friend and colleague. He said that he was interviewing a sex offender and learned that he had sexually abused a number of young boys while working within a nonprofit organization. But the offender explained that when he went to work at another organization, he never hurt another child. Until… after a few years the offender was transferred to a third organization and began to sexually abuse boys again. Fortunately he was caught. But my friend and colleague wondered, “What was in the culture and policies of the second organization that ensured the safety of those young children?”
I do think that one of our biggest challenges is how to create an environment where we encourage healthy relationships – an environment where we make healthy choices and not harmful ones. We want to create environments where people see what is going on around them and also choose to say something.
So in this case, there are examples of organizations that are looking closely at their culture and policies. If you are not familiar with these resources, I wanted to list just a few. (For full disclosure, I have had the good fortune to work on four out of five of these projects.)
A great report by the CDC titled Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures provides an excellent overview of the kinds of policies to consider.
Another report, produced by the Non-Profit Risk Management Center, provide more specific policies for nonprofit organizations working with children and youth titled: A Season of Hope: A Risk Management Guide for Youth-Serving Nonprofits.
In response to a case in Oregon in which a teacher sexually abused a student, the OR Children's Trust Fund commissioned a study on protecting children from this type of harm in school and other child-serving settings. Final Report to the Children’s Trust Fund of Oregon Foundation: Options for Short Remote Educational Tools on Child Maltreatment
Finally, here is a report produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association called Balancing Acts. The Training Center at NEARI offers an online training based on the Balancing Acts curriculum:
If you know of other resources to share, please post them here!