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The Power of the Bystander

By Dawn Runyon, Green Dot Education Program Specialist at Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government

TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

“My earliest memory is being sexually abused when I was three-years old. Throughout my childhood I would face more sexual abuse and unfortunately grew up thinking that domestic violence and child abuse were just a normal part of life. I thought that when someone loved you they had the right to do, say, or act just about any way they wanted to towards you and if you loved them back, you just accepted it – that was unconditional love. So at 18 years old when my partner began to yell, humiliate, and threaten physical harm to me if I didn’t do what he wanted, I didn’t think I had a choice. Fortunately for me, a bystander thought otherwise…”

For the past three years I’ve had the opportunity to lead the implementation of a community-based strategy, Green Dot Lexington, aimed at reducing the number of people impacted by violence. The quote above is my personal connection to what is referred to as power-based personal violence (PBPV), a term coined by the University of Kentucky researcher and educator who created the Green Dot program decades ago, Dr. Dorothy Edwards. PBPV is an umbrella term that covers various forms of violence like: domestic or dating violence (intimate partner violence), sexual violence, stalking, and child abuse. The great thing about the term is that it doesn’t ascribe a certain gender or sex as the perpetrator nor victim of the act. Instead it helps us to recognize that anyone can inflict or be the target of sexual violence, domestic/dating violence, stalking, or child abuse regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, social status, etc. Perpetrators of power-based personal violence use their power to intimidate or force someone to do something. It is done with the express intent to control someone else.

Power-based personal violence like child abuse is an issue that wreaks havoc throughout communities and we see its impact on the streets. This year alone, at least three out of eight gun deaths involving youth in Lexington were directly connected to some form of power-based personal violence in the home – something has to CHANGE! There are many organizations and programs that are striving to reduce the rates of violence in our community and I commend the HARD work that they do. Recently, Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Bounce Coalition hosted a screening of the documentary, RESILIENCE: THE BIOLOGY OF STRESS & THE SCIENCE OF HOPE, about the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their impact on the long-term physical and mental health of children. As I watched, I was overcome with both grief and hope at the fact that many children who (like me) had endured various childhood traumas, including childhood sexual abuse or growing up in a home where domestic violence occurred, were finally being seen. However, at the end of the day, the only way child abuse and many of the ACEs faced by children are going to end, is when enough people in our own community take on the personal responsibility for one another. Regardless, I believe with the right education and understanding about how power and control keep violence in motion we can, as a community, better support survivors, help shield children from encountering more ACEs, and hold perpetrators of violence accountable.

I’m convinced, not only from my own experience but after hearing the stories of hundreds of victims and survivors throughout the years, that in almost 100% of cases of domestic and sexual violence and child abuse there is at least one other person involved who wields a certain amount of power themselves – a bystander – someone who is present at or knowledgeable about an incident. Usually the bystander doesn’t do or say anything, for any number of reasons – the fear of one’s own personal safety being the most obvious. If we think about it, we probably are aware of any number of situations where someone was fighting with or beat up by their significant other. Maybe we overheard a parent losing their temper and demeaning or even striking a child in anger. You may even have a family member in a relationship with someone who keeps abusing and threatening them but you don’t think it’s any of your business. If any of these seem familiar, then you, my friend, are a BYSTANDER. Active Bystanders take the time to learn how to recognize the signs that abuse may be about to occur and they learn the skills necessary to safely intervene and help end the violence. Think how much safer our communities would be and how much healthier our futures would be if each of us took the time to learn these skills – Interested? August is National Bystander Awareness Month – it’s a time to recognize the power of the bystander and celebrate those who take an active role in addressing the behaviors of power-based personal violence. It’s also a time to encourage others to step up and become a part of the solution to prevent violence and abuse from occurring in the first place. Violence and abuse don’t happen by accident – committing domestic and sexual violence and child abuse is a CHOICE that the perpetrator makes and there are often many warning signs. As a Bystander, you have a CHOICE as well.

Continuing my quote from the beginning of this blog “…32 years ago when I was 18, my next door neighbor and friend made the CHOICE to choose safety for me when I was ill-equipped to choose it for myself. She made the choice to involve herself in my “business” risking our friendship and potential retaliation, and without me even knowing she reached out to get help for me.” By being an ACTIVE BYSTANDER she not only saved my life, but she helped me to learn a valuable truth which has helped me to heal from some of the ACEs I endured. Power Based Personal Violence is NOT healthy or normal, it’s NOT okay, and No ONE deserves it.

The late Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” This August, I challenge each of you to learn more about power based personal violence and how you can use your POWER as an Active Bystander to be a Hero to someone in need. A FREE Bystander Intervention training is available monthly in a virtual platform. For more information about Green Dot Lexington and the Bystander Awareness Month activities, visit: