During teenDVmonth, we've asked our National Youth Advisory Board to guest write blogs. This week's youth perspective is brought to you by Chandler Lewis, Team Member.
When I was growing up, teen dating violence and domestic violence were topics that were not openly discussed in my school or community. I knew that the Battered Women’s Shelter was at the end of our street because sometimes my mother and I would take food and clothing to help out. I knew that some of my friends had abusive parents and that some often tried to stay out of the house as long as they could to avoid being subjected to their parents’ violent behaviors. When I was in high school, we did not even talk about healthy relationships. As I grew up and started to understand more of what was going on around me, I saw that violence existed not only within my own friend groups, but also affected other people that I knew in the community.
As a boy, I grew up in a non-violent family. It was not until I went to college that my eyes were truly opened to the widespread levels of violence and abuse that took place between my peers. As a freshman, I decided to join a fraternity. I thought that this would be a great opportunity for me to get some more close male friends that I could develop lifelong friendships with. Sadly, my experience was tarnished by what I saw members of my community doing around me, even my so-called “brothers.” During my first quarter my fraternity hosted a lot of parties. It did not take me long to realize that lots of the guys around me were acting in very abusive and disgusting ways, often publicly shaming girls as they left our house in the mornings through the front door and yelling names at them from our porch as they ran off our lawn.
The tipping point for me was when one of my very close friends was filmed during a sexual encounter without her consent. As one of her best friends, I saw the devastating effect that this incident had on her. Yet, the response I heard from the guys around me was that they thought it was funny. Others joked that they should do the same to their girlfriends. There seemed to be no one that was speaking out about how messed up it was. I loved my female friends and would never even consider hurting them in any way, no less violating their privacy.
After dropping my fraternity, I became active in an organization on campus called SARVA, or Students Against Relationship Violence Advocates. I went through a ten-week training program that covered a wide variety of topics relating to relationship violence and sexual abuse. It was during this time that I also began developing my own project, that later turned into a non-profit organization called The Evergreen Project. Even in my SARVA training group, I was only one of two men out of thirty girls that participated in the seminars. Something was wrong with this. It did not make sense to me that if men and women both comprise 50% of the population, why it was that only a small percent were actively having a presence in one of the largest advocacy networks on my campus. It was at this point I knew that I needed to step up my efforts in advocating to my male peers and to the younger generation of boys in my own community.
Over the course of the last few years, I have been able to reflect on what obstacles I have had to overcome as a male working and advocating in the field of domestic violence. I think the biggest obstacle for me was overcoming the fear of being the only one to speak out against observed abuse in my own society circle. I was afraid that people would make fun of me for being a Feminist. I was afraid that speaking up would leave me alone and isolated because I was the only one to speak out and condemn the unhealthy and often times violent behaviors of my peers. I think fear was the biggest obstacle for me because even though I knew what was right, I still wanted to fit in. As a new college student trying to find my own way, it was easier to blend in than it was to stand out.
It is because of my own experience that I believe that in order to end the cycle of violence, we need to start the conversation early. We need to start talking to our kids about what healthy behaviors are and what abuse looks like. Men need to stop being afraid to speak out and denounce the violence that they see within their own circles. Programs like Take the First Step and Start Talking are great programs to get our youth to start having meaningful conversations about relationships and violence. Beyond that, organizations that focus on the male demographic need to work hard to remove the fear of speaking out and instead make it cool to not be violent. Loveisrespect, the partnership between Break the Cycle and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, works with boys and men between the ages of 12-24 to get involved in the conversation about relationship violence. They help young people understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors. It is essential that boys of all ages are included in the conversation about violence and abuse. As a man, I know I have privilege. I know that it is my responsibility to talk to my peers about the importance of healthy relationships and help make information more accessible. I know that it is my responsibility to continually challenge my peers to commit themselves to live non-violent, non-abusive lives and to speak out when they see injustices. I see it as my job to change the current perspective and look deeper at what it means to be a man in today’s society and not accept the status quo. I challenge all of you out there to not let fear hold you in perpetual silence, rather, use your voice to speak out when no one is listening.