I’ve been having a lot of conversations with colleagues lately about community-level prevention. As our movement shifted over a decade ago toward a focus on primary prevention – stopping sexual violence before it has a chance to happen – many of us were inspired by this shift, which allowed us to do deeper work instead of one-time awareness presentations. Since this shift, much of our prevention efforts have focused on the individual and relationship levels of the social ecology - like challenging harmful attitudes and values, encouraging respectful peer behavior, and increasing positive bystander actions.
This important foundational work has inspired our movement’s renewed attention on the community level of the social ecology. We have made such great strides in sexual violence prevention; it’s time to expand our reach. This emphasis on community-level prevention brings a lot of excitement, and a lot of questions, too – and it also brings us an opportunity we must not miss. We must make sure diversity and inclusion are at the center of this work from the beginning. There’s a really good example of this that I will share in a minute.
But first, what is community-level prevention? Prevention at the community level means that the prevention efforts target the social, economic, and environmental characteristics of settings that are associated with violence, in places like neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, or other organizational settings.
I talk with a lot of people who are doing great prevention work in schools who are nervous about expanding their work to the community level. But when we start discussing possible community-level strategies like working with students to revise and improve policies (like student codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies, and dress codes) I see the nervousness start to disappear. These are things that students care about, and are also great ways to expand prevention efforts into the community level - it’s a win-win, right? Well, if we aren’t including a focus on diversity and inclusion in this policy creation, it could be a huge loss – not a win at all. Dress codes are, unfortunately, a good example of what this looks like.
I’ve been seeing a lot of news recently about students (and even parents) being punished for dress code violations, many of which are written and enforced unfairly - upholding sexist, racist, classist, and sizeist beliefs. When dress codes are written with different clothing standards for girls than for boys, or contain racially coded language (like “hair should be neat and tidy”), both the code itself and the enforcement of the code are discriminatory. Dress codes frequently perpetuate racist views, particularly around hair – often, students just wearing their hair in its natural texture is considered a dress code violation. Because of this, students are taken out of class (which denies them equal access to learning opportunities) simply because their natural hair does not conform to the stated dress code. Dress codes also regularly sexualize girls by saying that exposing shoulders, wearing leggings, or having visible bra straps is “distracting,” which also has the result of making them (and their clothing choices) somehow responsible for other students’ potential bad behavior.
The lesson for our prevention work is this: If we do not work with a diverse and inclusive group to create or update policies, we will end up with unequal or problematic dress codes (or other policies) that may perpetuate the very social norms we are trying to change. We must be inclusive. We have to ask ourselves – who is missing? Whose voice needs to be heard? Who will be affected by this policy, and are they here, helping shape it? We can always pause to ask these questions, and take the time to make sure we are doing the right work in the right way. It’s not enough to move to the community level – we have to make sure that our prevention is inclusive and equitable.
For more information about student dress codes:
This is the sixth post in our Putting it into Practice: Diversity and Inclusion in Prevention blog series. The goal of this series is to highlight the work that folks are doing in to prioritize diversity and inclusivity in their prevention efforts.