Women's Freedom Center: Courageous conversations — the roots of social justice


We rarely write sequels to a previous month's column, but there was so much food for thought at our recent community event that we're picking up where we left off, to further highlight the creative power of bystanders to help avert trauma.

We'd like to thank all of you who packed into The Root with us last month for Tim Collins' play, "The Bystander." Tim offered his performance as a fundraiser for the Women's Freedom Center, and got a well-deserved standing ovation. Our audience too deserves a round of applause for the passionate discussion that followed, exploring the links between personal responsibility and the meaning of community. That's a lifelong conversation really, but especially relevant in October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month. While women are most likely to experience domestic or sexual violence, any of us could become a victim at some point, which raises some fundamental questions: who do we help, and who would help us?

There have been many studies in recent decades on the so-called Bystander Effect, which tracks how often people intervene when someone else is in trouble. Anyone is a potential bystander, and a potential helper. Yet research shows that the more witnesses present, the fewer actually help. Statistically, we're much more likely to take action when we're the only one around: Eighty-five percent of people will step up to help someone in trouble when they're the sole bystander. As soon as there's even one other witness, that number drops to 65 percent. And when there are four or more bystanders (say at a park, or a frat party), the help-rate drops to a staggering 30 percent.

This diffusion of responsibility can be further complicated when we're not talking muggings or roadside trouble, but domestic or sexual violence. Many myths still cloud the response here to both victim and offender, but one truth remains: Any intentional harm is criminal, and affects the whole community. What was so refreshing at our recent event was a united focus on the societal cost of doing nothing: Because even if we turn away, we are helping someone, it's just the wrong someone.

So what is the right action for a bystander? First, we must expand the time frame for meaningful intervention, well beyond ever jumping in to stop an assault or calling 911. Assaults don't just begin with violence but with attitudes, comments, and behaviors of offenders who don't usually expect us to notice or question them. There's actually a much wider window of opportunities for bystanders to challenge and shift norms in order to help make a difference. The beauty of intervention is that it can have as many facets as there are situations and bystanders — there's no single right way.

After the play many folks shared their own inspired and sometimes unconventional approaches to speaking out about a problem, perhaps reaching out quietly to a victim, or just creating some handy diversion to buy time when they sensed someone needing help. A witness can also connect to others who are nearby, whether that means their own friends, a victim's or offender's friends, or just strangers who could at least have each other's backs to step up together. As bystanders, we each have different skills, safety considerations, and other factors to weigh in a crisis. But good examples are often contagious. And even one brave soul can break the silence — can help counter that collective shrug of the Bystander Effect. Anyone can create that first tipping point in a more humane direction, and that's what's so liberating and empowering: it's really knowing the power we already have to make a difference.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham and Southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at Women's Freedom Center and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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