Darin James Dorsey is the Associate Educator and MyStrength Facilitator for the Sexual Assault Recovery & Prevention Program of San Luis Obispo County. In this guest post drawn from his professional journal, he provides a first-hand account of the experience as a new MyStrength facilitator starting a new school year.
by Darin James Dorsey
I started School #1 and School #2 groups, School #2 is a much easier club to start – little effort was required, I just showed up and started facilitating. School #1 is where a lot more problems arose. The teachers all gave me about 2-3 minutes in their classroom to pitch the club the day before it started, but I have a feeling this wasn’t very effective in recruiting students. The next day when I did start the club during 4th period, one student showed up and it was only after I encouraged him to bring his friends with him that I had a group of 3. Managing a 50 minute introductory session is not easy with 3 students, for the first session there should be more students than we desire, since there’s a good chance that some students will not be interested in the group. The next group I had included 8 students, most of them coming from a Math class where the teacher is a strong ally of the program. I’ll try to get her name the next time I’m there. This group was very difficult to facilitate in the gym where we met, there wasn’t a classroom structure. This is only relevant for the first session, which is more of a lecture than a discussion. I find that now the gym is an ideal place to meet, allowing students to get out of the classroom for a while.
The biggest difference between School #1 and School #2 are the inter-student relationships. At School #2 the students rely on each other, they are in platoons and they are all there with the purpose of becoming better people. They help each other out when they can, which leads me to believe that their sessions should specifically give them opportunities to engage in and promote this behavior. In a sense School #2 students have completed the beginning of the MyStrength program – they recognize that there is a problem. This is why School #1 is a much more difficult school to facilitate, most of these students are part of the problem we are addressing and have not acknowledged that. Telling someone that they ignorantly contribute to a culture of sexual violence and gender oppression is not easy. This leads me to believe that the problem should be presented before we start the program, in a lecture environment. There is less resistance to the message this way, making it easier to present.
After recruiting on behalf of MyStrength for the first time, I think the most effective tactic would be to bring in a very large group of guys, with no limit on the amount of participants. This introduction would probably be no more than 15-25 minutes. When I haven’t had a chance to build my credibility then the students are more focused on each other than the message I’m providing, and I think a larger group and lecture-type setting will focus their attention. This can be combined with the nomination letter tactic, assuming it is effective. The students who understand and support the message will come to MyStrength the next week, and those against it will not. I think we should embrace this for the time being; MyStrength simply does not work when the students don’t have a personal stake in the program. When the program is better established, it will be worth looking into ways to engage the youth resistant towards the message.
At School #1, I’ve noticed that social standing is a competition among the students, there is a hierarchy among the students. This hierarchy is very dynamic. The way I see it, they can sense how others view a particular student and in response they are constantly regulating their own actions to be socially acceptable. I believe this is what leads to silence and adversity in MyStrength, and a good amount of focus during the first few sessions should go towards deconstructing the social framework in the room and creating an open environment.
The 4th period session at School #1 began with 3 completely different groups, two with three students and one with four. None of these students were returners from a previous week. To me, this illustrates the difficulty of communicating the message of MyStrength to a somewhat resistant and socially paranoid audience. If one student has negative views toward the program and it’s evident to the other students then they will generally be worried about that student’s perception of them if they do participate – discouraging them from coming back. That’s why I feel it is necessary to present the entire message without objection, and then begin discussions.
The 5th period group is interesting, it began with 8 students and the first session was in the gym. I didn’t feel like I communicated the message very well, and actually thought that the 4th period class went a lot smoother. The informality of the discussion, amount of students, and the informal setting combined with the resistance to the message was counterproductive. Towards the end of the group, I asked the students what they were planning to get out of it. A few were silent, but eventually a student said he wanted to “become a better person” and about half agreed. In a way this encourages me to believe that having a focused anti-sexual violence message might not recruit as many members as a broader one such as “making the world a better place.” Perhaps I’ll lay off that message a bit for the first session next time. The next week, 4 students returned. We did pre-surveys and watched Hip Hop, Beyond Beats and Rhymes for the entire session. I followed this up the next week with a “continuum of harm” of song lyrics, including songs by Lil Wayne, Nickleback, Muse, David Banner, and John Mayer. We analyzed the songs for about 40 minutes, basically filling the entire session. I think music is the most accessible venue for students to understand MyStrength. During this session, I got a new member, bringing the count up to 5. Something that I’ve done is check in with the students after activities. I usually do this by asking questions like: “How did you feel about this activity? Do you think there was something missing; is there a song or example you would have liked to see?” The feedback helps a lot. I also let the students know what’s coming. Before we encountered the dominant story/counter story concept in my School #1 group, I let them know that the dynamics of the group will change a bit, the discussions will get more serious and they will have to be more involved.
– October (Part 2) will be posted here on CALCASA.org next Monday.