Faces of Public Health: Dorothy Edwards, Green Dot etc.

Jun 13, 2014, 2:16 PM


A report from a White House Task Force on sexual assaults on campus several weeks ago found that one in five women have been attacked, but only about 12 percent of the attacks are ever reported, often because of a campus climate that places blame on women and sends messages to men that sexual attacks are manly. The task force is asking colleges and universities to survey their students about sexual assault and other “campus climate” issues, and to track assaults and enforcement of campus policies that govern such assaults.

One idea gaining traction for reducing sexual assaults is called bystander intervention, which not only trains individuals to find safe ways to help prevent assaults, but seeks to change the campus cultures that can condone attacks.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Dorothy Edwards, executive director of Green Dot etc., which provides training for high schools and colleges on bystander intervention.

NewPublicHealth: Where does the name Green Dot come from?

Dorothy Edwards: Well, two different ways. I started my career in the field in Texas and for whatever reason for Sexual Assault Awareness Month green was the color of the ribbons. What was more intentional was the “dots” piece. That came out of one of the challenges in mobilizing bystanders to prevention, which is that this issue feels so big. People have been hearing about it for decades and I think there’s a kind of resignation that has settled in. Because when you hear the same number over and over and programs come and programs go and it’s an issue this big, people can just feel that there’s nothing they can do about it. “I’m one person, I can’t change this.”

So, one of the original challenges when we were playing with this idea of bystander intervention and highlighting more the integral role of this kind of third character—apart from victim and perpetrator—was that we knew in order for it to be effective it wasn’t just about skill and knowledge, it was about giving people a sense of possibility, giving people a sense of manageability. And when you say the word dot, a dot is small. So instead of saying we’ve got to change the whole culture, we’ve got to change all college campuses, we’ve got to change sexual assault—which feels so big—we can say to people, gosh, all we need you to actually deal with is a single green dot, a single moment, a single choice. And suddenly something very big feels very small and manageable

If you put that in the context of the image for Green Dot, the literal image is the map of the United States or the map of a campus or the map of the world with the red dots spreading across it and the image that comes up for people is, of course, the spread of an epidemic. And then what we do is we transfer the metaphor from instead of a red dot being a single disease, a red dot is a single choice—a single choice someone makes to hit someone, a single choice someone makes to verbally abuse, a single choice someone makes to have sex without consent.

Now suddenly this issue is a bunch of single moments, a bunch of single choices, each representing a single red dot on this community map. Now we go to the solution, which is a green dot. The solution in the middle of all of the red dots is one single choice that someone can make to get involved in some way, to make it less likely the red dot is going to get on this map. So we take this idea—a huge culture change—and not only do we make it small, not only do we say all we need is a single dot from you, but we also then drop that single choice into a context, into a shared vision where now everyone can go, well, with my green dot and your green dot and their green dot, I could actually see how these green dots could begin to spread across the map just like the red dots do.

NPH: How long has the organization been in place and how effective have you been in bystander intervention against sexual assaults?

Edwards: The program was started at the University of Kentucky in 2006-2007. Then it gained so much momentum and resonated with so many people that we started a nonprofit and began to just help other universities implement similar programs.

In terms of how effective it’s been, I’ll give a couple of different stages of answers. In terms of mobilizing and engaging people, the bystander approach has been extraordinarily effective because before we started talking about bystanders we talked about this issue as if there were only two characters: A potential perpetrator and a potential victim. When you develop awareness and prevention programming only through those two lenses, you end up with messages that are pretty limiting and—quite frankly—pretty disempowering. The men who got assigned the potential perpetrator role got messages that were essentially don’t be a perpetrator. When we talked to women who got assigned a potential victim role, they essentially got the message of don’t be a victim. With only those two characters we ended up with a really gender-divided movement.

By bringing in the third character—the bystander—we’re able to, number one, bring men and women together, bring everything from an incoming freshman to a university president together with the same message. It’s a proactive and positive message, and it says we can do this in the world that you’re already living in if you happen to intersect with one of these potential high-risk situations. So suddenly it’s about possibility and people have responded to that.

NPH: And do we know how effective it has been in reducing sexual assaults?

Edwards: The research is just now unfolding. But a study out of the University of New Hampshire published two years ago showed that—in terms of mobilizing, in terms of sustained behavior changes in bystanders—we’re seeing what we want to see. We’re seeing a decrease in counterproductive victim-blaming myths, those kinds of things, and we’re seeing an increase in not only reactive, but in proactive bystander behaviors. And they’re getting ready to put out a couple of other studies that are still in the review process.

They have shown some measurable decreases in specific forms of the targeted violence. The other big study that’s coming later this summer is from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about Green Dot in high schools over five years.

NPH: Can you give us a sense of the strategies that are used in bystander intervention?

Edwards: We pull from the theory of diffusion of innovation. It essentially says that if you really want to spread an idea or a behavior into a culture in the most efficient way, if you really want to make it the norm, there’s a deliberate way to do it and it focuses on essentially upfront training people with the most social influence. So we really emphasize breaking down your campus and asking what are the main subgroups, and then pulling from them those that are the most influential within those subgroups. So who are the most influential athletes and who are the most influential resident advisors? Who are the most influential from the LGBT community and who are the most influential from the African-American Student Union, etc.? Because if you get your most influential people to naturally endorse and model the key behaviors, that’s what going to create the change, rather than just training all incoming freshman.

One of the unintended consequences, as far as I’m concerned, of some of this mandating that all incoming students being trained [about sexual assaults], is that schools put their programs in the hands of incoming students—who have the least influence in terms of changing culture on a college campus.

So in Green Dot, we say, hell no. The first people we train are faculty and staff. Then we train our upperclassmen so that when we finally do train our incoming students, they’re actually stepping into an environment where those behaviors are going to be reinforced. Where they’re going to actually hear an instructor mention it in passing conversation, we’re they’re actually going to see a senior at a party that proactively says, oh yeah, we’ve got to make sure when we leave we take everyone with us because we look out for each other here.

And finally, a really key piece for us is that in order to get folks to intervene it has to translate to their real world. It has to translate to that party with their friend where three-quarters of the people are drunk, and the only way we’re going to get to a place where we’re talking about realistic interventions is if we create a space for people to talk openly about their obstacles. So if I can get a kid to say, ”Yeah, I want to do the right thing, but I can’t lose face in front of my friends,” then I can go “OK, let’s talk about things you can do where you wouldn’t lose face.” We’ll assume whatever obstacles people have when they come into a bystander training they’re going to have when they leave. And so we focus on options with barriers—you’re not going to get through them, so let’s get around them.

We talk about the three D’s—Direct, Delegate and Distract. And so if you can’t do a direct, fine, do a delegate, get someone else to do it, get a peer to do it, get two or three of your friends to go with you, leave an anonymous note for an instructor, send an email, call the police, get someone else to do it. And if you feel like you can’t do that, you go with a distract. A distract literally allows you to diffuse the situation without ever having to even acknowledge that you see it, and this is an option that these young adults often take. Everything ranging from “Steve, your car’s getting towed,” to spilling a drink, to “We need to do a pizza run” to “Hey, check out this video” or asking for directions.

Once they know they’re not bad people because they have barriers and they can begin to talk about them openly, then they’re kind of set free to do what they wanted to do all along, which is to intervene, but in a way that the cost isn’t so high that they can’t see themselves doing it.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.