October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so Voices is doing some features of people at Hope and in the community who are working to prevent domestic violence and support those who have experienced it. Christian Gibson is the STEP coordinator at Hope and also works as a Victim Advocate in Student Development, so she has first knowledge of what domestic violence looks like for college students and what we can do to prevent it from happening to others. This week, Voices sat down with Christian for a discussion about domestic violence at Hope and what her experience with that as been.
What is your job on campus?
“My title is Victim Advocate and Prevention Educator. I see myself doing two roles in one.
On the victim advocate side, I work directly with students in a supportive, informal therapeutic role if they have been through an experience that would fit under the umbrella of interpersonal violence, sexual assault, unwanted sexual contact or stalking. I try to go through the hierarchy of needs, making sure that students are eating, sleeping and going to class. I work as an advocate if they need accommodations, such as emailing a professor on their behalf. I would move them into a different living community if need be. Also, if a student wants to go through an investigation, I can be their support through that. On the prevention side, I run STEP, Students Teaching and Empowering Peers, which is a peer education student organization. We do all different kinds of programs around campus.”
What made you want to work in this field?
“When I was in grad school I took some classes about how trauma impacts the body and the brain, and at the same time I was also doing an internship that was focused on transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness. A lot of the people in the program were women and men who were impacted by domestic violence, and so in those experiences I was able to see how all those issues come together. I became very impassioned about trauma. After I finished my masters I ended up working on Calvin’s residential life staff for a while. I was also working part time in their counseling center, and I was asked to lead a group for female sexual assault survivors, and having that experience with those women and learning about their stories impacted me a lot. I saw how the trauma of something so intimate impacted their daily lives and in a Christian context we don’t talk about sex or what it means to have a body and be a sexual person. Seeing how they wrestled with questions of faith and doubt and sexuality, it became a passion for me. I also led the Sexual Assault Prevention Team at Calvin, which is where I realized I liked doing both the prevention and support side of things.”
What does your day-to-day role look like on campus?
“I’m teaching an FYS class this year which I really enjoy, but primarily it is a mix of meeting with students to plan programming and build partnerships on campus. I serve on a few different campus committees and I’m on leadership team for Student Development. Depending on the day and time of year, I might also be meeting with students in a one-on-one setting, trying to support them and advocate for them, and after those meetings I’m usually trying to make accommodations for those students by talking with the counseling center or housing. In the evenings, I might have a STEP program or meeting. All of my days look a little bit different, which I like.”
What is Domestic Violence? What sort of violence fits under this definition?
“Domestic violence, specifically, is any sort of abusive relationship within a home setting, between romantic partners of any gender or sexual identity, or between parents and children, or children and children. In addition, on Hope’s campus, dating violence could fall into this category as well, which is any form of an imbalance of power or control in a relationship, with one partner seeking to have control over the other. Often when we hear the term ‘domestic vioelnce’ or ‘sexual assault’ we tend to think about statistics and portrayals in the media, but there’s also emotional and psychological abuse that doesn’t get reported and general unhealthy relationships that people don’t consider abuse, so we tend to distance ourselves from that and make it just an “issue,” even though it impacts a lot of our lives in ways we don’t even realize. Part of my work is educating students about that.”
How does domestic violence affect Hope’s campus?
“This is my third academic year here, and different years we’ve noticed themes in the kind of reports and students that are coming in. Last year, we had lots of students reporting or meeting with me about unhealthy relationships. Sometimes it was sexual or physical [abuse], but it was often people needing support in the face of emotional abuse. I had a lot of students come in who were experiencing unhealthy or abusive friendship relationships especially in context of social media, such as roommates being insulting to each other on social media and stuff like that. I also had students coming in who were fearful due to people like ex-partners talking them on Snap Maps and other social media platforms. Particularly, when a relationship is more intimate, such as with a roommate or a romantic partner, it can turn into a situation where one person has power over the other in more subtle ways.”
What is Hope doing to acknowledge domestic violence awareness month?
“Every October STEP puts on an awareness campaign for DVAM. One of the primary things that we do is the Clothesline Project, which is an opportunity for survivors and allies to decorate a t-shirts in our honor of themselves or someone they know. It’s a really powerful display of resilience, and it’s cool because people from all over campus participate, such as faculty and staff, Greek organizations, and sport teams. All of these people are coming together to say, ‘We support survivors of domestic violence’ which is great. One of the other things that we’re doing is trying to partner with other ongoing programs. Speaking of which, next week we are having STEP coffeehouse, where survivors will have a chance to share their stories. A local nonprofit called Resilience will also be there with a table to talk about their resources with people.”
How can people do something about domestic violence on a personal level?
“The first thing is to be educated about what it means to be involved in a healthy relationship. I love the tool The College Power and Control Wheel, which shows what a relationship looks like when it has become unhealthy. It’s hard to look at but also it’s helpful to acknowledge what’s going on in your relationships. I tell students that if your relationship fits at least two of these categories then it’s probably unhealthy. On the flip side there is also a healthy relationship wheel which shows what a balanced relationship looks like. When we are educated, we can make ourselves healthier. On a personal level, good self-care is a great place to start, like sleeping and eating well so that we are healthy and well-rounded people. Only then can we begin to engage in healthy relationships with other people. It’s just a matter of being someone who is loving and caring and knowing what that looks like. The more I do this work, the more I realize that all relationships exist on a spectrum, and so we need to continually check-in on ourselves and all our relationships with other people.”
What does being involved with STEP look like?
“Right now STEP applications are open. We hire people in the fall and then we do training in spring. If you would like to apply, you can find our application on the Hope College website. The application is not a super competitive process, we just want to look at GPA and know if people are willing to commit to the time it takes. Training is a big commitment, but after that the commitment is pretty tailored to personal schedules.”
If you could say one thing to Hope College students, what would it be?
“You are loved. Often when people are unhealthy, it comes out of an ache and longing for something, usually love. And if everyone knew that they were truly loved, there would be less violence overall in our world. We need to embrace the idea that all people have the dignity of God within them.”
If you have any questions or would like to apply to join STEP, you can email Christian at email@example.com.