ST. ALBANS — When you put 20-plus human service group representatives in one room, give them a social issue, and ask them to discuss it, chances are, good and useful ideas will come out of the group.
This is the thinking behind the Franklin Grand Isle Community Partnership meetings in which Franklin County organizations come together at Northwest Counseling and Support Services for a two-hour session once a month. On Wednesday, representatives from local, state, education and volunteer groups met to share updates, find ways to collaborate and listen to the group’s monthly presentation.
This month, the presentation addressed preventing sexual violence, as April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Voices Against Violence outreach advocate and educator Amanda Rohdenburg spoke to the group on Wednesday. She talked about the contributing factors to sexual violence and the ways local organizations can help stop it from happening.
“I think this is a huge power hub for prevention in the community,” said Rohdenburg in reference to the partnership members at the meeting.
According to statistics presented by Rohdenburg, two-thirds of rapes are committed by a person known to the victim, and 60 percent of rapes are never reported. She added that 97 percent of reported offenders never spend a day in jail.
“We don’t talk about the thing that is dangerous, the thing that is threatening our community that is a structural problem,” Rohdenburg said.
Rohdenburg talked about the different layers of sexual violence prevention that need to be addressed, including individuals, relationships, community, and society.
On the individual and relationship levels, Rohdenburg pointed out that the risk factors for creating perpetrators include drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, poor family or emotional environment and lack of employment opportunity. “These look like a lot of the people we work with as service providers,” she added.
On the larger community and societal levels, Rohdenburg said the lack of institutional support, weak laws or policies related to gender equality, tolerance of sexual violence in the work place, and poor societal norms all contribute to an environment where sexual violence is allowed to perpetuate.
“Continuance of sexual violence in our community means we’ve set up our environment wrong,” she said.
In addition to presenting the problem, Rohdenburg laid out some potential solutions for the meeting group to discuss. “We have resources,” Rohdenburg said, “as a community that we have at our disposal.”
Rohdenburg’s suggested solutions included coalition building through community education, partnership and joint efforts, influencing policy and practice through policy assessments, updating safety measures and providing training opportunities, and shifting social norms about gender equality and bodily autonomy.
In response to these solutions, the community partnership members generated an hour-long discussion about various actions that could be taken both on an individual and group basis. Personal stories, examples from work, and larger ideas were shared across the table regarding consent, addressing sex and empowerment with children and teenagers, gender roles for different sexualities and relationships, being a responsible bystander, and holding communities accountable.
“We’re all responsible for our community and what it looks like,” added Kris Lukens, manager of Voices Against Violence in St. Albans.
Towards the end of Wednesday’s discussion, Rohdenburg spoke about how the community organization representatives in the room could play a direct role in preventing sexual violence.
“Paying close attention to the culture of institutions themselves I think is really important,” she said. She added that continued training, education, and partnership across the agencies would contribute to better community prevention of sexual violence, as would assessing and making any needed changes to agency policies and culture.
“I think that would enact a really powerful change,” Rohdenburg said.
Less is more
According to Joe Halko, director of community relations at NCSS and a member of the Partnership Executive Leadership Team, discussions like the one on Wednesday is exactly what the Community Partnership meetings should be about.
“The situation of sexual violence touches so many organizations that are trying to assist individuals and families,” Halko said in an interview Thursday. “There are so many of the organizations present,” he added, “who are trying to be resources.”
By allowing the meeting members to discuss the topic in depth, Halko said that groups are better able to see how their work is connected and intersects, and they also are able to find ways address any issues within their own organization.
These discussions have been more robust since January, when, said Halko, the Community Partnership meetings changed format and cut down from two presentations to one. “We began to feel as if the meetings were being rushed,” he said. Now, with only one presentation, there’s more time for organizations to communicate with one another.
“I think that’s made a huge difference,” Halko said. “We’ve been able to get into much more dynamic conversation.”
And these discussions, said Halko, even if they spark just one change within one organization or for one individual, are productive. “The most important thing is the bettering of people’s lives,” said Halko. “Even if you change one life, that’s huge.”