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It’s Not MY Problem: Bystander Intervention and Why It Matters

Bystander: someone who is aware of or sees a potential dangerous situation occurring and can do something to stop it.

Most of us have heard this phrase, and if you’re a freshman or a sophomore at JMU, you’ve sat through a whole program on the subject during Orientation. But what does being a bystander mean? Doing the right thing and intervening? How do we even do that? And, perhaps the biggest question: does bystander intervention even really make a difference?



This Friday, I attended a conference at JMU about promoting safe drinking habits on college campuses. The opening speaker was Jessy Lyons, a fabulously engaging lady from Green Dot, Etcetera, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating others about violence prevention. Lyons spoke about the culture of violence that exists on college campuses and our role as bystanders.

Lyons pointed out that as a society, we look at the culture of violence that exists in this country as a big, unchangeable fact of life. However, culture changes all the time. Lyons used the movie The Social Network as an example:

Facebook started because Mark Zuckerberg created the website in his dorm room. If you stopped the movie there, no culture change has occurred.

Mark then tells a few of his friends, and they start using Facebook. If you stopped the movie there, no culture change has occurred.

More and more Harvard students started using Facebook. If you stopped the movie there, no culture change has occurred.

But then Facebook is opened up to the general public. Then, real culture change starts to happen. Facebook has irrevocably shifted how we communicate in our culture, and all it came down to was a series of individual mouse clicks.

Our culture CAN change, Lyons says. It takes lots of individual changes and choices to create a larger, long lasting change.

This idea of individual decisions creating a big cultural change is essential to bystander intervention. You may think that stopping one situation isn’t making a difference to the larger problem, but if everyone stepped up even once, we would see real culture change.

As a feminist and violence prevention advocate, I’ve found myself getting incredibly frustrated at the endless task of creating an equal, safe environment for everyone. I’ve often wondered if my actions were even making a difference. Jessy Lyons’ talk made me realize that it’s not a matter of questioning my own actions; it’s a matter of motivating others into action.

“There are about fifty people in this room right now,” Lyons said.
“Imagine a perpetrator is standing on one side of the room and wants to do harm to someone on the other side of the room. If we sit back and do nothing, the perpetrator can easily get to the victim. But if we all stand up, there’s no way the perpetrator is getting through.”

After hearing this talk, I am making it my personal mission to stand up in potentially unsafe situation, whether that’s intervening myself or getting someone else to do it. And if we all make it our mission to stand up, there’s no way perpetrators are getting through again.

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