I Will Always Pick Proactives


was kneeling next to a table of participants explaining that while it’s absolutely essential that we give our students lots of ways to respond when they see concerning behaviors, if that is the only set of skills we are giving them to practice, it’s not enough to be the most effective prevention. Then I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He started tapping his pen, then he stopped. He leaned back in his chair, leaned forward again and started tapping his pen faster. Forcefully, he put his pen down and leaned back with his arms across his chest. “You look like you’re wrestling with a thought,” I said.

“You’re essentially discrediting my entire professional career. I’ve done bystander intervention work for community organizations, high schools, and colleges and what you’re trying to tell me is all this time I haven’t been doing prevention?”

Immediately, I was transported to the end of a presentation I facilitated with a colleague while working on a college campus. I was proud as our participants thanked us before leaving, until a man walked up and said, “I thought this was supposed to be about prevention.”

“It is,” I responded.

“How is this about prevention when all you talked about was how people should respond?” I was dumbfounded; my face got hot, my cheeks got pink, I started to talk fast. You can imagine the rest of that conversation – it wasn’t productive.

I saw myself in that young man with his arms crossed in front of me – desperate for confirmation that he aligned his practice with effective prevention strategies, defensive, ready to disagree with my pending response. We can validate the importance of giving our students and community members skills to intervene – there is REAL importance to this, and it is certainly part of prevention. But we have to push forward. If our trainings or curricula stop here, we will continue to live in response mode and we will continue to be on the lookout for the next concerning moment we can interrupt. Of course, we must make campuses safer for our students now. But we also need to work toward strengthening the culture of shared responsibility for the cohorts of students to follow.  We do that by changing the norms and the way we change norms is through proactive behaviors.

He loosened up.

There are certainly some reactive elements to violence prevention, but ultimately prevention requires that there be a strong proactive focus. This proactive lens is how we engage in primaryprevention. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines primary prevention as “intervening before health effects occur.” For interpersonal violence, this means intervening before violence has occurred. Public health research has consistently informed us that best practices for addressing violence include investing our resources into incorporating prevention within each level of the Social-Ecological Model.The Social-Ecological Model (SEM) is a theory-based framework for understanding the effects of individual and environmental factors that determine behavior. There are four levels of the SEM used by the CDC: individual, relationship, community, and societal. The SEM allows us to understand the range of factors across each of these levels that put people at risk for violence or protect them from experiencing or perpetrating violence. In other words, it gives violence prevention educators a framework to focus prevention activities in order to comprehensively address risk and protective factors present at each of these levels. As educators we want to give folks the tools to proactively communicate their belief of intolerance of interpersonal violence within each level of the SEM.

We can impact those around us by making our inward facing values into clearly communicated outward facing values. We do this all the time with literally everything. How do people know the music you like or that you’re a dog-lover? How do students learn what’s cool in a group or what’s not? By observing! People know what you like, care about, and support because you talk about it, you display it, you post about it on social media. You have stickers about it on your laptop, water bottle, or car. You hang up signage or posters. Your Goodreads book list is themed around it or maybe you’ve even gone to concerts, rallies, or other events about whatever that thing happens to be. We do this for so many different aspects of our lives. There’s an urgency to be proactive in this same way with prevention.

When we see things that concern us, we know that we’re concerned. Our stomach drops like we’re on a rollercoaster. We do a doubletake and look back at situations we pass that seem odd. We make eye-contact with a friend when we overhear a troubling bit of a conversation. Ultimately, we know that we’re worried, and it’s up to us to identify how to respond when that happens. In our culture, there are strong prescriptive norms for reacting when we see these concerning things pop up in our lives.  And still, it’s quite possible that in those moments, someone may hit up against their barriers and never feel equipped to act, even if they know how.  It’s also likely that someone may never run into the opportunity to intervene in a high-risk situation that could potentially lead to harm. The great thing about being proactive though, is you never have to run into something concerning. Everyonecan do proactive behaviors!  Of course, there are also barriers for proactives because we don’t have those same prescriptive norms we have for responding to harm. Luckily, there are options for everyone and lots of ways we can proactively communicate our values around interpersonal violence. If you care about these issues, would you consider sharing a story on your social media about violence prevention, having resources out in your office about where people can get support, or adding a quote to your signature line about community members looking out for each other? Is it possible that you can attend/advertise events on your campus geared toward violence prevention, recognize active bystanders publicly by acknowledging what they’ve done, or talk about these issues with people in your life even if it feels unprompted?

As professionals in the field of prevention, it is irresponsible for us to leave out this necessary proactive component in our programming. In fact, if I was forced to focus on one single aspect of prevention in the training room, I will alwayspick proactives. Being proactive is less intuitive and many people are less practiced with openly sharing their values around these issues. If every single person that believes our communities should be inhospitable to interpersonal violence communicated their belief, they would set-up an environment which does not permit those intending to do harm to even risk trying.

It is imperative that we make our inward facing value of intolerance for interpersonal violence our outward facing value. This is how we shift norms. This is how we change the culture. And that is what we need to do to ensure less people get hurt.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). The social-ecological model: A framework for prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/overview/social-ecologicalmodel.html

Dills J, Fowler D, Payne G. Sexual Violence on Campus: Strategies for Prevention. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016.

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