You'd have to live under a rock in Alaska to avoid knowing that the state is infamous for things no community should be bragging about. Among its disreputable achievements is a persistent prominence among states with the highest sexual assault and domestic violence rates in the nation. Women. Children. Men. Urban. Rural. Whoever you are, wherever you live, however you live, chances are you or someone you know has been a victim of violence.
Victimization surveys by the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage estimate nearly three out of every five women in Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both.
Alaska has long struggled with how to bring down the rates of violence against women and families.
An anti-violence movement underway in Alaska and across the nation suggests it is in the way we conduct ourselves during everyday activities, like grabbing a cup of coffee or grocery shopping, that the key to ending the violence might be found. The nexus for meaningful change may lie not with policy makers and the justice system, but with average people -- people who become revolutionaries in the anti-violence movement through small, everyday acts of intervention.
This is the concept behind something called the Green Dot project, a nationwide effort that has in recent years found its way to Alaska. On many crime maps, violent acts are aggregated as dots, a quick way for the reader to gauge what kinds of crime are happening most, and where. A green dot is meant to represent positive action in a community that can be measured and mapped.
Five communities in Alaska managed to rack up more green dots during April than an entire year's worth of estimated sexual assault and domestic violence occurrences within those same communities. Anchorage, Homer, Bethel, Kenai and Prince of Wales participated in the month-long push, and compared their respective one month of "green dots" to crime stats from the Alaska Victimization Surveys from the University of Alaska Anchorage.
A total of 12,769 violent incidents were countered by what has been described as 27,082 acts of "intervention, safety and hope."
"If one person is hurt, no matter how many green dots you do, that won't make their pain go away," said Melissa Emmal, who helped organized the Anchorage effort in her role as deputy director of the women's shelter Abused Women's Aid in Crisis. "But what we do have is the ability and power to control are today and the future."
Green Dot Founder Dorothy Edwards, a Virginia-based psychologist, came up with the idea after realizing traditional approaches weren't working. Despite years of public health messaging centered on lists of "don'ts" -- don't hit, don't do drugs, don't go out alone, etc. -- she noticed rates of power-based violence were largely unchanged.
Consider just what is known about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. In 2000, a National Institute of Justice study found that one out of every five undergraduate women experience an attempted or complete sexual assault.
In 2007, a follow-up study found one in 36 college women are victimized through sexual assault. Because the study focused on a limited timeline within a calendar year, the authors suggested that had the study period been longer, documented rates would likely jump to a fifth or a quarter of college women, about the same rate as found in 2000.
Last month, while rolling out its new "notalone.gov" website designed to promote awareness about sexual assault and prevention on college campuses, the White House reported the same result — that "one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college."
Edwards came up with the Green Dot project in an effort to not "be swallowed by the apathy around me," according to a personal statement from her on the project's website. Passionately, she further explains: "I am not willing to pretend it is not horrifying that thousands of women, children and men will be victims of sexual violence, partner violence, stalking and abuse every single day. I am defiant against a culture that tries to lull my soul into quiet complacency as our daughters and our sons -- our partners and our sisters and our brothers -- face violence and the threat of violence every single day."
Edwards has both a professional and personal motivation in shifting society's tolerance for violence. As a psychologist she studies the trends and effects from the perspective as practitioner. But as a victim herself, and the mother of a victim, she also knows the private, intimate turmoil and hurt victims suffer, and has said she refuses to believe that high rates of power-based personal violence are inevitable.
She doesn't believe sexual and domestic violence can be eliminated entirely. But she does believe there can be less of it, and that any amount of improvement is a good thing.
Earlier this week Edwards was in Anchorage training Alaskans on how to implement Green Dot initiatives in their communities. Their goal as trainers is to overcome the barriers that keep witnesses to violence silent, and to give people a variety of ways to intervene.
"If we can convince individuals that make up our community that their voice matters and their actions matter, we can create an environment where violence is no longer tolerated and everyone is expected to do their part," explained Jenna Mejia, a community education manager with Standing Together Against Rape who attended the training.
Green Dot does not encourage people to place themselves in dangerous situations. Rather, it encourages actions that will either de-escalate a situation, or call a high-risk situation to the attention of more capable responders. The strategy is also flexible, allowing people to make intervention choices that are consistent with their own community norms and traditions, based on something called the "three Ds": a choice of responses that represent either getting directly involved, delegating the task, or use of a distraction.
Anecdotal stories from the Green Dot effort in April include a woman who was shopping at the grocery store and noticed a mom having trouble with a child in the dairy section and felt that the situation was getting out of control. To intervene, the shopper chose to use both a distraction and a direct approach. She excused herself and cut between the mom and kid to get at the eggs. Once she'd broken the ice that way, she then struck up a conversation with the mom about how rough it can sometimes be with little ones. It was enough to get the mom to shift focus, take a break and regroup. Sometimes, Edwards says, that's all it takes.
But any number of other approaches could also have worked. Uncomfortable actually getting involved with a parent? Let a store manager know there's a problem. Or call the police. Whatever you can do, as long as it's doing something, is better than doing nothing. The goal of Green Dot is action over inaction.
In another situation, two soldiers were having coffee when they noticed a man and a woman fighting outside the cafe's windows. The soldiers knocked on the window to let the couple know they were aware of what was going on. But the couple kept bickering. The man was hostile. Worried about the woman, the men went outside to check on her. By the time police showed up, the man had taken off. The woman thanked the men for getting involved and helping her.
In yet another community, a woman helped break up an escalating fight between a couple by enthusiastically asking them if they'd just seen the huge moose that had walked by a few moments earlier. Without talking about the fight, or confronting anyone directly, she reported, it had been enough to defuse the situation.
Edwards and the Alaska Green Dot participants liken their effort to other great social movements the nation has seen -- civil rights, the women's movement, anti-smoking campaigns, even Facebook. None would have been successful without a mob of individuals participating and demanding change, without many, many people and many small acts combining to become a large force that influenced society.
"Once a bunch of individuals made the choice to do something, something bigger happened. Big change happens when individuals do little things," Edwards said.
The guiding tenets for Green Dot?
Violence will not be tolerated.
We are all part of the solution.
Inaction has a devastating human cost.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.