Be the change: Creating the world as you want it to be
Editor’s note: Daryl Fort is the keynote speaker at the AWARE Mental Health and Violence Prevention Summit. Fort is a senior MVP Strategies trainer and curriculum developer. Daryl has trained tens of thousands of student athletes, coaches and administrators at hundreds of major NCAA institutions, as well as other student leaders and students at colleges and high schools. He has been an integral part of the MVP Strategies training teams that have trained thousands of military trainers and troops in all the major services of the U.S. Armed Forces. He is also a community development consultant and gender violence prevention activist, speaker, and educator who has worked throughout North America, Eastern Asia, Europe, Iraq, and Australia as a consultant to community-based and non-profit organizations, as well as public and private-sector institutions.
Here are some of Fort’s thoughts:
How is your work relevant to this conference?
I am part of a leadership program that’s focused on the prevention of gender-based violence: sexual harassment, relationship violence, rape, stalking, male-on-male bullying, gay-bashing, violence against LGBTQ individuals, and other forms of abuse. The program looks to inspire individuals to challenge and change social, cultural and institutional norms that support abusive behavior in their peer group, organizations and communities. MVP utilizes the "bystander approach" program in the field of gender violence prevention education. The approach focuses on our common experience as potentially empowered bystanders – friends, colleagues, family member, teammates, etc. – rather than as potential perpetrators or victims, who can recognize and confront harassment and abuse, and, hold those in their expanded peer groups and their organizations accountable to a standard of respect.
In the school setting, the program inspires leadership by empowering individuals with tools to lead and with concrete options to effect change in their peer cultures, as well as with younger students and others. It also frames gender violence prevention as a leadership issue and opportunity for administrators, faculty and students at all levels of the educational system. The leadership and bystander focus allows the issues of gender violence prevention to be framed with a context of inclusion and responsibility for everyone.
Something that continues to distinguish this approach is that from the very beginning, we have utilized both the philosophy and teaching tools of social justice education. We explicitly discuss the gender, sexual and racial norms and structures of power that often underlie abusive acts and affect people’s choices as bystanders. Social norms, and, individual identities around masculinity, femininity, sex, gender, race, and economic status, among other factors, all impact people’s decision-making.
An important part focuses on supporting students in ethical decision making and critical-thinking skills. How does this contribute to creating safe, respectful and caring learning environments?
Critical thinking and ethical decision-making are core elements of our approach. One way we look to impact those things is through how we focus on leadership. In working with students, we ask them what leadership means to them. What it almost always produces is a set of expectations about service, care, empathy, active listening, respect and accountability. These are all behaviors and characteristics that are potentially inclusive of everyone, not simply those with formal authority or status. So that immediately brings everyone into the conversation around accountability. It’s also interesting to ask: How does it make anyone of us feel, when we are treated in those ways by their peers, by people in authority figures? We’ve articulated a context for who we aspire to be and why. Those ideas are important tools for any of us when the time comes to make what feels like an uncomfortable, risky decision to confront abusive behavior or conditions. How would it feel if this was the norm in your school??
How do you view the role of bystander in violence prevention?
I think the importance of the bystander approach has a lot to do with how we define what a bystander is. Bystander as a friend, family member, colleague, peer group member, teammate – it is really defined by the people with whom we are in relationship. Of course, it can later expand into the “stranger” world, but the goal of this approach is not simply to intervene at the scene of an assault. The goal is to positively transform our communities and culture. It starts with those close to us. We begin with inviting students to think about the people with whom they have relationships. It offers an opportunity, a shared purpose, to feel some sort of responsibility, and to engage that response from a stand point of familiarity. We are a part of the same school, community or the same team; we operate from a single mission or share the same values. These are the things that offer folks an opportunity to answer affirmatively why we feel we have responsibility to answer to one another.
It is also a way of getting to recognize the responsibility to self. My sense of what type of friend I am, or what type of teammate I am, or what kind of supervisor, CEO, public official or community member I am, can be a really challenging and inviting question. Who do I want to be? If we can connect one’s self image with their personal aspirations to ethical decision making and critical thinking, that can be powerful.
Why is it important for the bystander approach to be a part of a larger systems response?
One way to answer that goes back to how do we define bystander? Sometimes as adults and youth-serving professionals, we “externalize” the experience of young people, of students. We externalize our accountability to the environment those students are in and in which they are asked to make decisions. We affect the environment, the culture that young people are asked to operate in, we define that context in many ways. The Department of Education, the school board, the school administrators, the teachers, the school boards, faculty, coaches – we are all bystanders. This implicates us and our own personal and professional transformation.
As I think about what this approach can offer, it is an opportunity for adults who are in positions of authority to be accountable to it as well. Teaching and modeling respectful behavior in our schools and communities is everyone’s responsibility. After all, we are asking young people to make really vulnerable and courageous decisions in their own lives.
What are the challenges boys and men experience when it comes to cultivating healthy relationships with one another? With women and girls?
Still in 2019, our culture teaches as one of the core elements that a man has to be dominant in interpersonal relationships. To be “Alpha” in your interpersonal relationships with other men and with the opposite sex. It’s a poor beginning. Our culture also actively teaches that femininity is subservient to masculinity.
There’s a whole lot of unlearning that needs to be done. The other challenge is replacing those attitudes and behaviors with ways of thinking and being that affirm, respect and support compassion and care.
How did you become involved in this work?
I think it began with my parents. Critical consciousness was important in their own lives and they thought it was important for my sister and I to have critical-thinking skills and understand the importance of social justice for our own lives and for the greater good. It started there. I was always interested in politics and sociology – I was always interested in how things worked, in how people worked. I got the opportunity to work in politics and thought of it as a way to make a positive difference – that was important to me. Later in my career, I met Jackson Katz and he presented the opportunity to join the work of social justice in a different, what felt like more intimate, way. I’ve been able to expand my network of peers and scope or work around leadership and organizational development. It’s been a passion and a privilege ever since.