This Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, we reached out to One Love Foundation to continue the ongoing conversation about teen dating violence education and prevention. As a nonprofit that facilitates educational workshops from elementary schools to college campuses, they excel in their ability to speak to young people about understanding abusive behaviors in relationships and what healthy behaviors look like. Started in honor of the late Yeardley Love, a college student killed by her abusive boyfriend, One Love Foundation works each day to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
For this blog, we spoke with One Love Foundation’s Director of Digital Content & Partnerships, Ebele Onyema.
1. Could you please describe One Love Foundation’s mission in eliminating intimate partner violence?
Our goal is to equip young people with the tools to help them know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors before they escalate to abuse, and then to be able to have those conversations with their peers, friends, and other people within their communities.
2. One Love Foundation initially started as an organization that targeted college campuses. Now, their programming has extended to teenagers in high school settings. What differences are there in your educational approaches between those two age groups?
Actually, we have content that reaches as early as 5th grade. We found out when we started working in college that the content was really well received but that the people in our workshops were saying, “Man, I really wish I had this earlier. This would’ve been so helpful to have had earlier, to have had in high school.” So, then we went to high school and…same thing. High school students were saying it would’ve been so helpful to have earlier.
Now, if you’re in 5th grade, we’re having a different conversation than we are if you are 20-years-old. The way that it scaffolds is that in those 5th, 6th, and 7th grade conversations, we’re talking about healthy vs. unhealthy friendship. I think that conversation continues throughout the ages, but you really are focusing on a friendship angle. Then in high school, you’re thinking “What are the milestones in high school?” We do try to scaffold junior high and earlier high school, we’re talking about that first relationship, crushes, etc. As a student gets older…it’s still kind of the same content. When you’re talking about friendship, you’re talking about your boundaries. What are things that are ok and not ok to do? Then when you’re in your first crush stage, what are things that are ok and not ok to do? Then as you’re evolving into more mature physical relationships, what’s ok to do and not ok to do? The concepts really remain the same: practicing healthy behaviors, navigating endings, and navigating boundaries and consent. All of those learning objectives stay the same, it’s just what’s age appropriate that’s different.
3. What are dating red flags that teens don’t often register as being red flags? Are there red flags that adults in their lives frequently don’t pick up on as well?
There are so many behaviors that we as a society normalize. That makes it really challenging to see them as red flags. We normalize possessiveness and jealousy. We say that, if someone is jealous to the point of being possessive, that means that they like you or that they’re into you. We normalize intensity in some ways. If someone is focused solely on you, if someone is constantly reaching out to you, it means that they like you or that they’re into you. It’s romantic, it’s heady, it’s all-consuming, it’s a rush of what “young love” is supposed to be. We have 10 Signs of a Healthy Relationship and 10 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship, with possessiveness and intensity being on there as signs of things to look out for. So, it becomes important to say, “What is just the beginning of having a crush on someone and what is a potential sign of abuse?” It all comes down to, “How does it make you feel?”
It can evolve and change. In the beginning, someone shining their full light on you feels really good. Then, it might eventually begin to feel overwhelming and suffocating, and that’s ok. So that’s when it’s gone from, “This is actually feeling really nice” to maybe being unhealthy. Then you can communicate that. If the person doesn’t change the behavior, then you know, “Oh, ok. Now they’re not listening to my needs.” So that is something to pay attention to.
For adults missing potential red flags, I think it’s the same thing. We are surrounded in media and in our neighborhoods by a lot of unhealthy behaviors that we normalize.
4. While discussion about how to have healthy relationships is still under-discussed, conversations about healthy dynamics specifically for LGBTQ+ couples are even more minimal. Which considerations can parents, schools, and/or community members take to ensure LGBTQ+ teens are properly supported too?
One of the things I’m really proud of at One Love Foundation is that we have worked hard to create content that reflects LGBTQ+ couples and the unique ways in which the 10 signs show up. We have a document called “10 Signs of a Healthy and Unhealthy Relationship: LGBTQ+ Edition”, because these dynamics only recently began being depicted with greater frequency on television shows, in movies, and to a lesser extent, in schools. For schools that want to do justice by all of their students, they can look to One Love Foundation and find content that speaks to a range of dynamics.
These adults should make sure they’re showing content that depicts a range of different relationship dynamics. This includes making sure that they are being mindful of people’s pronouns. To an extent, relationship dynamics are relationship dynamics regardless of the people that are in the relationship. However, there are different ways in which those dynamics, healthy and unhealthy, play out. For example, if someone is going to manipulate you in a gay context, maybe you’re not “out” and they’re using that as leverage to hold over you. That should be an example that comes up in a class just as much as a straight way of manipulation might. You should just fold these things into the class as normal examples and not as “Ok, today we’re going to talk about queer relationships for just this one day.” No. These examples should just be peppered in throughout your general population lessons.
Then, I think, using students to provide examples for things. At one level we’ll say, “Here’s this situation. How might it be different if these two people were lesbians in this couple? How might it be different and how might it not?” The class would then say, “Oh, it would play out exactly the same,” or “It would be different because of x, y, and z reasons.” Letting your students be the experts in their own experience and using their knowledge to add to the class, add to the discussion, regardless of their sexual identity or preferences, I think is really important.
5. Just as important as protecting teens from suffering intimate partner violence is preventing teens from becoming perpetrators of intimate partner violence. What can be done to help instill in teens at a young age how to embody safe and healthy dating practices for their future partners?
That’s why we love to start early and talk about friendship. We say, “we all do unhealthy things.” So, people might look at our 10 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship and think, “Oh my gosh, I do those things! Am I unhealthy?” and the answer is, “Maybe, but you’re in good company because we all do these things from time to time.” The thing that makes it a problem is when it’s happening repeatedly, in a pattern, when you’re not changing your behavior even when you know you’re doing these things. So, we think about friendship and how you treat your friends. How are you respecting your friends’ boundaries? Are you guilting them? Are you behaving in a way that is manipulative or that, when you see them hanging out with someone else, do you get jealous to the point of being possessive? Are you doing these things? If you are, it’s good to notice them and then we can all choose to behave differently. When you start on a friendship level, that then gives you a foundation to talk about dating relationships, to an extent.
I think sometimes, we see dating and friendships as wholly different things. You might know how to do friendship and then think, “Oh my gosh, dating is this complete other, and the friendship rules don’t apply” when they actually do.
When we do workshops, we don’t assume that everyone is going to be on the receiving end of unhealthy behaviors. You have to assume when you go into a room that there are going to be people doing unhealthy things. We’ve had people come up to us at a workshop and say, “Oh my gosh, I’m the bad actor!” I think seeing those behaviors and have them be called out as unhealthy is a really good first step. Because again, we’re talking about how a lot of unhealthy behaviors become normalized, and you just don’t know. I think sometimes we just think that there are monsters in the world, and certainly there are some monsters, but sometimes having a behavior labeled as unhealthy is enough to make someone change that behavior.
6. One major area in which teens suffer intimate partner abuse is through the online space. What can parents, teachers, and other adult community members do to teach their teenagers online safety?
It’s hard because, when these unhealthy behaviors happen on your child’s phone, you don’t have eyes on it. It’s not like a bruise you can see on their arm, so it makes it hard to know if it’s happening. One of the things that parents and teachers can look out for are changes in behavior. Is your child withdrawing? Do they seem more attached to their phone than usual in an unhealthy way with responses like, “No, no, no! I have to get back to my phone. I have to respond!” Is there almost a fear involved in their phone interactions? Are they not doing the same activities they used to do? Are they not hanging out with the same people they used to? All of those types of things are ways to know if unhealthy digital behaviors are happening when you don’t necessarily have eyes on it.
As far as, “how can you teach digital safety?” I think that it’s conveying that, even though these behaviors are on your phone, they still are unhealthy and they can still be abusive. We have a hard enough time when it’s face to face. This person was in your face yelling at you, or they threw something across the room, and you can convince yourself, “Well, that’s not abuse because they never laid hands on me.” We have a hard enough time in those scenarios, so it’s a step even more removed when it’s on a phone because there really isn’t any physical contact. But, if someone is blowing up your phone berating you, if someone is tracking your location on your phone, if someone is posting photos of you non-consensually, or if someone is using their phone to control or manipulate you in any way, that is abuse. Naming those things, giving your young person those examples and calling it what it is (abuse or unhealthy behavior), is very important.
7. How does One Love Foundation aim to be intersectional in their approach to reaching out to all teens?
We are coming off of a tremendous amount of content creation. I’m really proud that I got to work on a project that was funded by the All State Foundation, where we put out a call for young filmmakers of color and/or queer filmmakers to create our latest four films. The films coming out now were created by young filmmakers 18-25 who really created beautiful stories that are reflective of their lived experiences. So, we do try to center youth voices even in the creation of our films and especially in the creation of the discussion guides that come after. We’re centering different youth voices to speak into the curricula that we create.
We are an organization that started because a young White woman was murdered, and that has been the catalyst then to say, “We need to make sure that this doesn’t happen to any young person.” So, we’ve put in a lot of time and investment into increasing the type of content that we can offer so that as many communities as possible can find their kid’s stories in our work.
8. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think a lot about how older adults have talked to me about behaviors that are unhealthy. They have said to me, “I would’ve never called it that.” There’s a nuance between “I would’ve never called it that” and “I would’ve never called it that, but I KNEW in my gut that something wasn’t great.” Those are two different things. Knowing something and feeling it, and then having the courage to name it. This idea of trusting your gut is so important, and yet there are 10,000,000 ways in which we’re taught to not trust our gut. For anyone that would be reading this blog, anyone that we would reach over this next month, I just would love for them to know that you have full permission and authority to trust yourself, to listen to yourself, to listen to your body, to listen to that voice in your head that’s telling you “I don’t like this. This doesn’t feel good”, and you get to act on that. You get to take care of yourself. You get to center yourself.
So often, we don’t trust or listen to that voice because we don’t want to make the other person uncomfortable, or embarrass them, or wonder “What will people say?” We’ll consider all of these external events that we’re trying to prevent, when really the only event that matters is the event of your wholeness, your safety, your happiness, and honoring what you need.