“It’s a labor of love,” says Beth Catlett, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. The chair of the department of Women’s and Gender Studies and director of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender, and Community is enthusiastic and earnest while talking about the program “Take Back the Halls: Ending Violence in Relationships and Schools.”
Since 2004, the violence prevention and community activism program has brought together graduate students, undergraduate interns and students from three Chicago high schools in facilitated, after-school, weekly discussions about dating violence, sexual assault and abuse, and domestic violence.
“The larger idea behind Take Back the Halls is pushing back against oppression, including sexism, racism and homophobia,” says Catlett. “In the beginning of the program, which lasts most of the academic year, we ask the teens to think about the big picture, asking question such as ‘What is power?’ and ‘How has gender socialization affected your lives?’ Then, we start addressing relationship violence: ‘What’s been your experience? What do healthy relationships look like? How do you build them?’ Finally, the teens communicate what they’ve learned through an activism project, of their own design, in their schools or neighborhoods.”
“At first, the teens are leery, because we’re not ‘teaching’ them and because they’re not used to talking about their own ideas,” says Cassie Forster-Broten, a team leader and graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies. “[But] toward the last sessions, we can hardly get them to stop talking! They learn that their opinions matter and that their experience is a form of knowledge. That transformation—from silence to consciousness to activism—is huge. They discover that their voices can make change: That’s powerful.”
Take Back the Halls—co-directed by Heather Flett, director of Taking Back Our Lives, a nonprofit advocacy organization for women—combines practice and theory. Best practices in intervention are folded into the program’s curriculum. While the graduate students create a loose agenda for each meeting, undergraduates on the team—already trained in the principles of the program—encourage the high school students to run with the topics. Then, in the winter, the DePaul students take a class to provide a rich academic context for what they’re doing in the program.
Takeaways for Teens
Take Back the Halls is consciousness-raising for the high school students, says DePaul student Jane Serenska: “We’re doing something different from all the adults in their lives: We’re listening to them, valuing their life experiences and letting them know they’re not alone.”
Fellow student Alejandra Lara agrees, suggesting that increased self-awareness leads to empathy. “A lot of kids don’t seem to care about violence unless it’s happening to them or in their family. Then, they—the girls especially—blame themselves, saying ‘This is my fault; I caused this.’ Through the program, we help them see that a bad situation happened to them not because of them. Once they understand that there’s no excuse for bad behavior, they end up with changed attitudes toward themselves and others; they begin to sympathize with everyone who’s been abused.”
“This program is very empowering,” adds Forster-Broten. “The high school students—and the DePaul students, also—learn how to talk to their peers and others. And they discover ways to combat relationship violence in their own lives and in their communities.”
A Transformative Process
Often, the undergraduate interns benefit from the program just like the teens.“In the neighborhood I grew up in, everyone knew about domestic violence—all my friends, we’ve all been through that,” says Lara. “But, in the program, I gained insights about that. For one thing, I was going back and forth in an abusive relationship myself. After a while, I started to feel bad about showing up every week and talking to the girls, who looked up to us, without sharing what I was putting myself through. I think that without the program, and my relationships with the teens, I would have had a harder time getting out of that relationship.”
Serenska feels the same: “I had no trouble relating to the teens because I’ve also experienced patterns of violence that I’d never been able to think about in a productive way. Interacting with them became a personal transformation for me. In fact, I wish I’d been able to participate in Take Back the Halls when I was in high school—this is a great program, and it really works.”
For many interns, the program is also a first job and, therefore, an opportunity to pick up practical skills. “They learn how to be responsible and reliable, how to listen and communicate, and how to manage their time and other people’s expectations,” says Forster-Broten.
The program has worked so well for participants—both the teens and the interns—that, in the spring, Take Back the Halls will launch a pilot class for DePaul students who are interested in coming together to discuss issues surrounding relationship violence and to advocate for change in their own communities.
Edited and adapted from DePaul Distinctions.