I confess, I’m totally guilty of this; its a thing conference speakers do. It’s the moment when a powerpoint slide flips up with some sexy-looking graphic that is intended to shorthand a complex theory and confer a patina of expertise and insider knowledge on the remainder of the talk. “See” says the graphic in all of its neat, color-palette logic, “it all makes sense.” Bonus points if the graphic moves.
If the speaker is talking about sexual violence prevention, dimes to dollars the graphic will be the socio-ecological model. Known to the prevention-hip as the SEM. To wit:
Beloved by so many of us in the prevention world, tattooed on a select, committed few, the SEM is, all joking aside, incredibly valuable when it comes to developing effective prevention strategies. It seeks to depict, and therefore make a bit more understandable, the overlapping influences and factors that contribute to or impede persons committing or experiencing violence. Once made visible, prevention pros can take these protective or risk factors into account when developing their interventions. But it’s value is only realized when the graphic and the prevention theory it illustrates is understood and actually used by practitioners in the field. Without actual adoption, it’s just a pretty picture.
I was particularly excited, therefore, to see the recent publication from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), Innovations In Community-Level Prevention, authored by Stephanie Townsend, review examples of the SEM in action and to consider how these new approaches may translate to the college environment. Very helpfully, Townsend takes pains to identify and describe some of the common elements that most community-level interventions include:
- community empowerment
- multiple areas of action
- local design
- external linkages and resources
- theory of change
- strengthening the sense of community
- taking a long-term perspective
And, critically, community-based interventions all, as the report articulates, “take sources of social power — including citizen participation, definitions of social problems, and articulation of solutions — and use them to bring about change that benefits the entire community.” (pg. 14). I couldn’t agree more. It is the pivot towards scrutinizing how social power can be harnessed to address the roots of violence that fundamentally mark the difference between the socioecological levels of individual or relationship and community. Social power accretes at the community level.
The report has organized its recommendations into those targeted at “funders and public health agencies,” “technical assistance providers,” and “local programs” which are stakeholder categories that make a lot of sense for community-based organizations, less so for campuses. Campus-based prevention pros may find it helpful to consider “local programs” as analogs for campus groups or organizations that are focused on sexual violence prevention, viewing themselves as the “technical assistance providers” and identifying those who make institutional budget decisions as the equivalent for “funders and public health agencies.” With these substitutions, the report yields a lot of helpful recommendations. Here are a few additional take-aways and campus translations from this new resource from the very smart folks at NSVRC.
For institutional funders
Fund high-impact projects for the long-term
The recommendations for “funders”– to fund multi-year proposals, and to invest in supporting programs that have articulated a clear theory of change for their proposals–are equally useful for provosts, vice presidents, and deans to consider when reviewing institutional budget requests for sexual violence prevention efforts. As Townsend notes, multi-year funding “supports the relationship building, input, and consensus processes necessary for community-level work.”
Funding over the long-term also leads to greater organizational stability; allows sexual violence prevention programs to learn from their experiences and adjust; provides more opportunity to gather data and demonstrate outcomes (more on that later), and helps break the “one-and-done” cycle of programming. Funding a few high-impact, logically connected interventions for a longer period of time is a much more effective approach to ending sexual violence than funding a proliferation of disjointed programs for a short period of time.
For campus prevention pros
Develop campus group capacity around comprehensive prevention 101
Take a look at your student or staff volunteer training curriculum. Do you spend time in the initial training and in your on-going training to teach volunteers the fundamentals of prevention? Do you move beyond discussing the individual level of violence prevention? If not, it is unlikely that volunteers will be prepared to think more holistically in their own efforts.
Now, you might be thinking something like this: “But my agenda is already so packed and EVERYTHING is important!” Yes! I too have banged my head against this brick wall. Consider what the role is for volunteers in your organization and triage the content you deliver first to be what they immediately need to know to perform that role. Having an understanding of comprehensive prevention and a beginning skill set to use that knowledge will provide a solid platform from which they can then integrate the sexual violence subject matter. Also–this is an opportunity to team up with partners on campus who support groups engaged in health promotion efforts so that all the groups are receiving the same foundational framework.
For campus-based groups
Identify how the intervention is intended to change the community
In my decades of experience working with both campus- and community-based groups, a common struggle is in identifying what is a strategy (the how), what is an activity (the what), and what is an outcome (the so what). Identifying a theory of change is key to articulating the difference between these three factors, and also seeing the relationship between these components. It is also important because, as Townsend astutely notes, the SEM is a powerful engine for identifying the focus of the intended change, but stalls out when it comes to providing insight on how to make those changes happen.
One challenge in the campus environment is transience and lack of community continuity–especially in the student context. In order to gather context information as a part of the intervention development process, Townsend recommends asking these questions: “Consider other changes that have occurred or been attempted in your community. What has worked to bring about change on other issues? What has been tried and not worked? Who was involved? What motivated their involvement? What were the critical factors that led to success?” (pg. 25). These questions can help students understand that even though they may have only one, three, or even five years on campus, they’re joining a community with a much longer history and that history will impact the success of their current efforts.
Engaging in community-level prevention efforts requires more effort, more time, and a different set of knowledge and skills to be successful, but it is absolutely worth it. As this report reminds us, “[w]hen successful, community-level change not only achieves its explicit goals, it also strengthens the sense of community” (pg. 15). And sustaining strong, healthy, respectful, caring campus communities is our ultimate goal.