Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Teaching Teens About Healthy Relationships

Renewal House advocate Colleen Armstrong and Roxbury Youth Programs coordinator Angela Cespedes attended a training session for a Safe Dates curriculum on healthy communication/relationships and dating geared toward middle and high school students. The training was offered by Jane Doe, Inc., the Massachusetts statewide consortium of domestic violence and sexual assault programs. Beginning in the fall, we have begun reaching out to the Mission Hill community to offer the nine-week curriculum to local programs. We began with Roxbury Youth Programs' high school seniors and in the Spring we will be working with RYP middle schoolers. We recently received confirmation that we will be providing the program for 6th, 7th and 8th graders at Mission Hill School and we are working on getting into two other schools in our neighborhood. In addition, we will be adjusting the curriculum to provide it to 9- to 12-year-old girls through an after-school program at Sociedad Latina. We are very excited to be working in the area of education and prevention, an area that is so vitally important, and yet under-developed in Renewal House due to our limited staffing.

Two weeks ago I attended one of the sessions led by Colleen and our Simmons social work intern, Charmaine, for Roxbury Youth Programs. Following a presentation and review of past sessions, the young people divided into groups of three to work on role-playing exercises. Finding myself in a group with two young women, I was fascinated to see how the young people got into their roles. The first exercise was a scenario between a boy and a girl having difficulty in their dating relationship due to the boy's jealousy of the girl's extra-curricular activities. It was a difficult role play because the girls found themselves wanting to change their activities to appease the boy - and I kept encouraging them to find a way to stay strong in what they wanted to do rather than in what they thought he wanted them to do. They did a nice job of tackling the challenge.

The second role-playing exercise was between two girls, and involved one girl accusing her friend of being too flirty with her boyfriend. The first girl had just broken up with the boyfriend but was clearly still in love with him. And the second girl could tell that the boy was now interested in her and she was enjoying the attention. Soon the discussion escalated into an argument, with both girls accusing one another of terrible behavior and trying to hurt the other. The argument focused around whom the boy belonged to, who he liked better and why. The goal of the exercise, as with the previous one, was to try to find possible ways out of the argument and instead supporting one another. For these two girls, a peaceful resolution seemed impossible. I tried to encourage them to look at ways they could fight their way out of the argument, but it only ended in further derogatory comments and accusations.

At the end of the exercise, I reflected on how easy it seemed for two very good friends to get stuck in this scenario. The focus was not on their common annoyance with a boy who was so clearly "playing" both of them, but rather on what each girl was doing to perpetuate the relationship and its hurtful impact on the other. I was struck by how powerful sexism is - how it traps women/girls in fighting over men and blinds us to the reality that our patriarchal society is hurtful to us all. Why do we - as women - choose to turn on one another rather toward one another? How does sexism and misogyny have such power and control over both men and women? It is as if we are all blinded by the ways we have been hurt and would rather strike out to hurt another rather than truly feel the pain of victimization and work to end it for ourselves and for others.

I am proud to offer the Safe Dates curriculum as another branch of the work of Renewal House, and I look forward to finding ways we can continue to engage young people. This curriculum enables us to provide young people with tools that they can use to more critically think about all of their relationships.

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