What Can I Do?

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By Grant Oliphant

I had the pleasure of attending a conference on ending gender-based violence. The featured presenter was Jackson Katz, whose presentations on this subject have become an online sensation. Katz’s basic contention is that it is up to men to stop dismissing domestic and other gender-based violence as a “women’s issue” and to embrace it for what it is: a man’s issue.

That bothers some people who want to take the discomfort out of the subject by arguing that men can be victims of gender violence, too. That’s true, but as Katz points out, while men are often the target of gender violence, in the case of male and female victims alike the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. Until men start expecting different and better behavior from themselves and each other, the problem will persist.

As FISA Foundation executive director and conference host Kristy Trautmann so aptly put it, “We can’t build enough women’s shelters to end domestic violence.” Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto got that in his opening comments, when he said, “We as men have a responsibility to end domestic violence” and then challenged the audience to make Pittsburgh a leader in the effort.

During the Q&A period after Katz’s presentation, what struck me was how many of the questions – from men and women alike – seemed to suggest that the problem was bigger than us. They spoke of destructive societal norms, damaging cultural expectations, and systems impervious to change. And they “other-ized” the perpetrators of violence by describing them as deviants, monsters, outside the mainstream and thus beyond our ability to control.

This is so common in community change work. Even those of us who see ourselves as leaders can be shockingly adept at rendering ourselves impotent. Faced with daunting challenges and seemingly overwhelming odds, we take refuge in how “complicated” the problems are, how deeply entwined in a culture of drugs, guns, crime, violent media, peer pressure, family dynamics, poverty, racism, and the whole writhing, twisting mass of social dysfunctions that we use to explain every act of violence and cruelty from internet bullying to murder.

My wife, who runs Pittsburgh’s signature leadership program, tells the story of a participant in one of her cohorts who angrily confronted her at the end of a session. The class was nearing the close of the year-long program and had just been hearing about an important civic issue that apparently upset this gentleman greatly. “This needs to change–what are you going to do about it?” he demanded furiously. She had the presence of mind to turn this into a teachable moment. “I think you’ve missed the point,” she answered. “What are you going to do about it?”

Leadership starts and ends with that one simple question: What am I going to do? Not “What can I make you do?” but rather “What can I do?”

Sure, no one of us has the power to alter the complex social dynamics that encourage gender-based violence. And yet every single social movement in history has begun just that way, with individuals deciding to do what they can, and then banding together to do more, and slowly, step by step, spreading the word and the example of a new norm from the few to the more to the many. Katz makes the convincing case that leadership on gender violence starts with each of us refusing to stand idly by when we see it happening and making it clear that we view gender violence as unacceptable.

That may sound like a slow way to start a movement. But starting there will make all the difference—not only for the women and girls in our lives, but for the men and boys too.

Grant Oliphant is the president of The Heinz Endowments.

Photography by Renee Rosensteel


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