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The MN Summit to Prevent Sexual Violence

June 8, 2010

Why a Summit

What does it take to shift our social paradigm from “the rape culture” to a society that values equality, offers sex positive role models, talks as readily about healthy sexuality as supports sexually toxic messages, features media, corporate, religious, academic, and public policies that have a goal of creating an environment that disdains violence that uses sex? Exactly that paradigm shift is what the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA) had in mind when we hosted the MN Summit to Prevent Sexual Violence December, 2009. The 200 people who gathered – representatives from business, industry, the media, faith communities, educators, policy makers and sexual assault issue experts – spent a day learning that the solution to our sexually violent society is a broad, community wide one that calls for everyone to step up to the task at hand.

We are talking about making a fundamental change in the way we function as a society. We now recognize sexual violence as a major lifelong challenge that results in poor health outcomes AND that therefore requires a public health response. In other words, this is not about individual unfortunate people who happen to be assaulted, it is about how we are as a society. We cannot remain complacent in the face of the terrible personal, community and financial cost of sexual violence.

So, how is the Summit going to prompt change? With the unprecedented support from five state departments, private foundations and corporations, MNCASA was able to start the dialog with other community leaders. We haven’t given up on the power of the advocacy movement to make fundamental change – but we know that the kind of change that must happen to stop sexual violence is larger than the non-profit sector.

One of our major challenges in the prevention world is that most people want to focus on educating potential victims, or their parents, in an effort to keep them safe. Risk reduction education (e.g. good touch/bad touch, self defense training, training about sexual assault as a crime) is good and important, but that alone does not create society wide change we need. Remember the smoking debates? For decades health care experts warned us of the dangers of smoking. We saw films of black lungs, we were shown medical specimens of diseased lungs, we were told that each cigarette took 5 minutes off our life expectancy, and we read the warnings on cigarette packs. The scientific studies pointed to the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. Yet many of us continued to think we would be the ones who beat the odds. We had the education about smoking’s risks, yet we continued to smoke. It wasn’t until policy changes began to be made – one small step at a time – that the social norm that supported smoking started to shift. While it had been an annoying habit to non-smokers, it was not typical to confront smokers and ask them to move or stop and smoking was still considered to be cool. Now the attitude about smoking has entirely changed. Smoking in the vicinity of non-smokers is entirely unacceptable, smoking in restaurants and other places is overwhelmingly against convention if not actual law, and smoking is not seen to be cool. It is this kind of paradigm shift to expecting smoke free environments that can and will counteract the normalization of sexual harm.

What Happened

After DrumHeart drummed us all into the room, the day began. The program was divided into three theme areas and was facilitated by MPR’s Jeff Horwich. First, the group was asked to react to the theme “Owning the Problem and the Solution.” Background information about sexual violence was presented and William Mitchell Dean and President Eric Janus provided a provocative look at how Minnesota policy makers had set a course that does not necessarily lead us to the outcomes we want regarding attention to victims/survivors and prevention. Roundtable discussions that were led by table facilitators then asked the group to consider the question “What impact does sexual violence have on your business, organization, or community? How do the losses from sexual violence become your business? In economic terms? In terms of productivity? In terms of organizational or personal relationships?” They then discussed prevention strategies that could be addressed in their own spheres of influence. Notes were delivered electronically to our technology “brain center” and were scrolled on screens for the audience to read.

The second theme was one that brought the audience to peak attention. Dr. Sharon Cooper addressed “Environment Matters: The Perfect Storm.” Dr. Cooper is a Forensic and Developmental Pediatrician and a Board member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She is co-author of the most comprehensive medical, legal and social sciences text on child sexual exploitation and Internet crimes against children. She serves on the faculty of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine. She addressed the increasingly toxic environment, the blend of our consumer culture, ready access to sexually exploitative images in mainstream media, access to illegal child and legal adult pornography on the internet, and the impact on communities, youth, adults and health. For those who were not part of the anti-sexual violence movement, the presentation was alarming, emotional, and stunning. Over lunch we viewed a short video from Larry Cohen (now on the MNCASA website) that talks about the power of policy initiatives to create sustainable change. We also heard from Cordelia Anderson with her “Top Ten Strategies for Prevention.” After lunch, groups were asked to react to Dr. Cooper, Larry Cohen and Cordelia in response to the question, “What actions can we take to counter the normalization of sexual violence in the culture?” Again, the responses from the 20 tables were streamed live to the audience.

The third theme asked the audience to consider what can happen when we work across disciplines, sectors or areas of professional focus. Integrated Leadership: The Bottom Line is Prevention/Your Role in Sexual Violence Prevention. A panel representing advocacy, the MN Legislature, University of Minnesota School of Journalism, small business, and faith communities offered examples of how they had worked to begin addressing environment change in their worlds. Again the audience engaged in a facilitated table conversation to identify what organizational practices or policies for prevention of sexual violence have been used in their organizations. Answers were scrolled for the audience to view.

The day was also punctuated by music, spoken word, and visual art representations to help the audience integrate all they were hearing.
At the end of the day, with the data all collected electronically from the audience, there was a call to action – each participant was asked to commit to one personal action and one organizational action they would take away from the day. Those were also shared immediately with the audience so all could celebrate the outcomes of the day.

What is Next

Since the Summit MNCASA has been working to bring critical voices from various sectors together for an additional in-depth look at how we can prompt broad leadership for change. In partnership with the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota, we are hosting five roundtables in June. We will examine further the potential for action among leaders in faith communities, business and industry, media, and among U of M programs and departments. A fifth gathering will focus on the impact and social costs of pornography. We will discuss what research tells us of the “second hand smoke” effect of pornography and what strategies we can employ to lead a reasonable discussion about the role of social leadership in counteracting the harm of pornography.

The Summit was just a beginning. MNCASA would love to see mini-summits to happen in individual communities. We are happy to help advocates consider how they may bring together community leaders to look at their own potential for change. County boards, city councils, school boards, churches, civic organizations and others are all examples of systems often open to or ripe for change.
We have to work together to end sexual violence. Instead of hoping that those close to us beat the odds and avoid sexual violence in their lifetimes, it is time to change the odds and ensure that everyone has the ability to spend their precious personal energy on being the very best they can be. It is that vision of prevention that fuels our work.

The data from the Summit has been collated and organized into 10 key outcome actions which are available here.

Written by guest author Donna Dunn, Executive Director of the MN Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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