By Mar Firke Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education)
Take Back the Night is often thought of as an awareness event, but increasingly, it is being harnessed as an opportunity for community-based prevention education. We spoke to one educator who is using Take Back the Night to build both awareness and bystander intervention skills.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers? My name is Cheryl Banks. I am the community educator and volunteer coordinator for the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center at Prince George’s Hospital Center.
What kinds of sexual violence prevention and education are you involved with? How do you connect with your audiences and keep the audience engaged? I do a lot of work in the schools, delivering presentations as requested. This is mostly in the high schools, but I work in middle and elementary schools as well. I’m also involved with Prince George’s Community College, Bowie State University, and University of Maryland, College Park, as well. These presentations are predominantly speaking with health classes. I talk to the students about sexual assault by defining our topics and then prompting them to discuss certain issues. Evaluation is an important part of what we do. We do a pre- and post-tests. It helps us to measure how the students are growing, but it’s also an important tool for teaching because it prompts conversation. It’s very interactive. I do a lot of storytelling. I’ve been working in this field for a long time. It’ll be 40 years in November! I have lots of stories, and that’s what keeps me here is that storytelling. I never expected that I’d still be in the classroom. I thought that the kids would put their heads down and go to sleep, and that would be my cue to bow out. But it hasn’t happened. I’m an old white female and I’m middle class. I’m mostly working in urban communities, where most of the kids—probably 85 or 90 percent—are African American, and the rest are Latino. You would think we have nothing in common. You can see it when I walk in the door, that they are thinking, “What do you know about my life?” If I were them, I’d think that too! But when we engage, it’s really fun. And when they can see that I’m keeping up, they love it. In a presentation last week, I was talking about dancing in the club and for fun, I dabbed. The kids went crazy. They loved it.
Take Back The Night is often seen as an awareness event, rather than a prevention initiative. How have you harnessed Take Back the Night as a prevention opportunity in your community? Take Back the Night, for us, is an opportunity for Survivors to share their stories and tell the community about their journey. We also take it as an opportunity to share some of the strategies of the Green Dot Bystander Intervention strategy. We talk about strategies that people can use, such as the “3 D’s” of “be Direct,” “Distract,” and “Delegate” as different approaches that attendees can take when they intervene. In Green Dot language, a “self-defining moment” is when become aware that there is an issue, that you need to face a challenge in order to do something about it, and you choose which action to take. We know people in our community who have attended Take Back the Night and credited those survivor stories with helping them to have a “self-defining moment” where they chose to take action. One woman brought her 15-year-old son to our event, where they heard a story from a woman about being gang raped as a 14-year-old. A year later, he intervened at a party when he saw an intoxicated girl surrounded by three boys. He chose to delegate and had a friend of the girl involved help get her out of the situation. Recognizing the need to step in—and having an appropriate strategy that he could put into action—was a “self-defining moment” for this young man. This is bystander intervention at it’s finest, and the roots of his intervention were at Take Back the Night.
Who is your audience for this event? How do you incorporate different communities within your region into your programming? We have between 150 and 200 people at Take Back the Night each year! (I don’t even think we could handle many more, since we have the event inside to avoid interference from incoming helicopters.) Word of mouth is a huge part of how we share the information. Our Take Back the Night event has been going on for years—and past attendees are always very eager to share the information with their friends. What’s more, we have about 35 Victim Advocates, and they are all so connected. They share the information with all of their networks. We send out flyers and post information online in many places. The State’s Attorney posts information in the courthouse so that survivors coming to Peace and Protective Order hearings can see it. I share flyers when I go to speak at schools, which brings in a few people each year. We try to put out as broad a call as possible every year, and every year we get a really diverse crowd. Students, families, young folks, old folks—it’s a big mix.
If you could give our readers one message about sexual assault prevention, what would you share? I believe, and always have, that this is a surmountable problem. Sexual assault doesn’t have to exist—it only exists because the larger community doesn’t know what to do to get involved. I believe that if we all Speak Up and Speak Out and pull these secrets into the light that we will certainly minimize it. We can end the tolerance of sexual violence by getting involved in any way that we can. What I tell high school kids is that it may not happen in my lifetime, but it surely can happen in theirs. But they have to decide to do something. If they all decide to do something, the tolerance of sexual violence will end. It’s been a very long road, but I see changes everywhere, and it is so exciting to me. I do believe with all my heart and soul that in 20 years people won’t tolerate sexual violence. It may happen, but not so easily. People speak out about it first, and bystanders will jump in, and I think we’ll stop victim blaming. We are on that path. It is unbelievable how much we have moved in the last 40 years.