If you’re looking for escape these days, you won’t find it in the entertainment news.
Ever since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, we’ve been bombarded with stories about alleged new victims and a growing number of predatory or at least obnoxious Hollywood executives and stars. Some of these stories go back decades, demonstrating that the only real trend is that people are beginning to talk about it.
What ought to be truly sobering is what many women already know: For every Hollywood starlet with a sad story to tell, there are tens of thousands or more women — and some men — who have encountered harassment in their own workplaces, schools and personal lives.
So what can we do about it?
If we expect to change the fundamental attitudes that lead to sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence and other symptoms of poisonous personal interactions, we need to start young.
That’s the new mission of Heidi Markow, founder of the Beginning Over Foundation and a longtime advocate and resource for victims of domestic violence.
Markow’s life changed in 2005 when her sister, Robin Shaffer, was fatally shot at age 43 by her abusive estranged husband. The organization’s website explains, “Heidi vowed that she would not only honor her sister’s memory, but would help others move from the darkness of grief into the light of healing and healthy living.”
She has honored her sister through courtroom and legislative advocacy, as a support and resource for women who are victims of domestic violence and as a speaker and educator.
Markow’s research over the last decade-plus has helped her understand that domestic violence is at the root of many social ills, including homelessness, poverty and suicide. She said intimate partner violence is the leading cause of injuries to girls 16 to 24.
Her work has taken an emotional toll over the years, and she has found herself re-evaluating her efforts. “I’ve been up and down,” she said. “Am I going to continue this work? What do I do?
“Then I really started thinking. When I started, I wanted to make a difference. Let’s go back to square one.”
She decided that instead of just trying to pick up the pieces after violence and tragedy, she should recommit herself to prevention and education.
With help, she began repurposing a dormant Beginning Over Foundation program called Learn the Basics, designed to help boys and girls understand how they should approach dating and relationships.
One of the people who worked with her was her son, Iggy, now a 17-year-old senior at Wilson Area High School.
Iggy, who was just 5 years old when his aunt was murdered, told me he’s been watching his mother do this work for years and that he decided he has something offer. “During high school, I’ve seen lots of the stuff she’s been talking about,” he told me. “I definitely feel like hearing it from another high school student would help turn their eyes to the real problems.”
Heidi told me, “He said, ‘Mom, I just want to add some things to [Learn the Basics.]’ The two of us really worked together on it.”
Heidi approached Wilson Area High School Principal John Martuscelli about incorporating Learn the Basics into the school’s health programs as part of an effort they hope will spread to area schools, organizations and colleges.
They decided to devote a full day of ninth-grade health classes to the Markows’ Power Point presentation about healthy relationships, teen dating violence and bullying, separating the girls and boys so they might feel more comfortable sharing their own experiences.
Martuscelli said, “I think it’s valuable information for the kids to have.” He told me he sat in on some of the classes, and he liked what he saw and heard.
“The main thrust is healthy relationships, what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate in a relationship,” he said. “I think that’s valuable, especially with young ninth-grade students who may be entering their first relationships.”
He said the school hopes to incorporate this new material into its health curriculum, which already addresses this topic.
Heidi said they decided to focus on the words equality and respect. “[Students] leave knowing that with equality and respect in relationships, they will most likely have healthy relationships.”
Not surprisingly, at least a few of the kids have seen unhealthy relationships in their own homes. “It gives you chills to think about it,” she said. “One of the boys raised his hand and said, ‘Can I just say something? I have been protecting my mom most of my life from abuse.'”
Iggy, who helped teach the session with the boys, said he made it clear he is just another student, but that domestic violence has affected his life. Among other things, he handled slides relating to technology and the ways it can be used for stalking and bullying, offering real life scenarios and sounding the students out about how this might have affected them.
Heidi said they ended up working with 114 boys and 117 girls over the course of the day, and the response was very encouraging.
Young people today are bombarded with negative influences that their elders never had to process, including unhealthy messages about sex and relationships. Countering all that will take more than one presentation, no matter how effective.
But if we can help our children understand that any relationship needs equality and respect to grow in a healthy way, we’ve taken an important first step.
To learn more about the program and how it could work with your school or group, contact the foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (610) 438-9112.