The pandemic is not the problem; we have an identity problem in domestic violence prevention

One of the most common questions from preventionists at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic was "How do we keep doing prevention during a pandemic?" Regular phone calls were scheduled to brainstorm approaches and the general feeling in the room was panic. I get it. I understand that when your prevention work is mainly reliant on in-person programming in settings such as schools and youth centers, having to figure out how to “do a prevention program” some other way is difficult and stressful. There also is the omnipresent pressure to fulfill grant obligations and meet project timelines, sometimes without regard or mention of community context or need.


I would like to suggest that asking how to continue a prevention program in the midst of a worldwide pandemic actually is a red flag that your prevention programming may not be as inclusive or community-centered as it needs to be. Put more bluntly, the question about implementing “prevention programs” implies that prevention is separate from upholding the health and wellness of our communities, which is tied to the “either/or thinking” characteristic of white supremacy culture.


A very real struggle on our hands


Over the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light the cracks in our national domestic violence prevention structure. We have an identity problem in domestic violence prevention. The fact that preventing domestic violence and distributing food to families or assisting immigrant families with employment paperwork is seen as mutually exclusive is troubling.


We have a very real struggle on our hands: We need to use models of prevention that are recognized and fundable but also are effective in communities. We need to pay prevention staff a livable wage and structure prevention in an equitable way organizationally (both of which derive from professionalization), while also needing to steer clear of becoming professional at the cost of being responsive to our communities.


We are at risk of over-professionalizing domestic violence prevention; are we building our own sandbox only to keep ourselves from participating in the larger playground of prevention? Honestly, the notion that home life (e.g., a family putting food on their table) and professional life (e.g., a evidence-based prevention program in a box) are separate (and exist separately within a person) is a Eurocentric worldview that most communities of color do not follow.


The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light the cracks in our national prevention structure. We have an identity problem in domestic violence prevention.

This is not news to the many people of color who have been working in prevention and watched as a predominantly colonial model of prevention research has dominated domestic violence prevention. I want to highlight the bold statement that the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence has issued that calls out and identifies the many ways in which the overall domestic violence movement has sidelined the voices of people of color, and even put people of color more at risk for structural violence due to an over-reliance on police response and the criminalization of domestic violence.


In prevention, our continued reliance on creating standalone “domestic violence prevention programs” adds unneeded colonial elements to prevention (specifically professionalism and heeding to university institutional research), rather than uplifting and adapting something that may already exist in the community and needs to be leveraged as a way to prevent domestic violence.


Unneeded isolation


This narrow scope also has limited our access to prevention monies and creates unneeded challenges in coalition building and collaboration. For example, why aren’t we going to the substance misuse prevention or ACEs table instead of starting our own coalition? Why are we still funding research studies on educational programs that call themselves a domestic violence prevention program? Shouldn’t all research dollars now be funding the identification of overlapping risk and protective factors so we can finally identify the ”recipe” for preventing the perpetration of domestic violence?


We have followed the lead of more well-funded issues’ evidence-based programs that aren't possible to implement effectively on small domestic violence prevention budgets. We have been trying to collect evidence and practice prevention in ways that further isolate the communities in which we live and work. We remain isolated when domestic violence is anything but an isolated problem.


For example, even though we know that domestic violence is a societal problem, it's still treated as a women’s issue. We have to learn to balance gender-specific issues with the intersectional reality of daily life and overlapping concerns in our communities. Isolating domestic violence as a woman’s issue is a white-privileged stance to take and does not reflect the intersectional lives of the diverse population of people in our nation (not to mention it is heterosexist).


Isolating domestic violence as a woman’s issue is a white-privileged stance to take and does not reflect the intersectional lives of the diverse population of people in our nation (not to mention it is heterosexist).

On a similar note, primary prevention is essential, but it is not sufficient. We've encouraged the specification of “primary prevention” at the loss of connection with community-based efforts to address the community-level risk and protective factors that may ultimately prevent domestic violence.


Consider the recent approach taken by the Blue Shield of California Foundation to fund the implementation and evaluation of “multiple-generation” approaches to preventing domestic violence. These approaches offer a doorway into leveraging existing promising community practices that are largely untested as a way to prevent domestic violence. For example, in addition to providing social and emotional programming for children, parents also can learn about their own trauma and emotional regulation. Programming could include health screenings for the family, workforce programs and postsecondary education training for caregivers, and food and housing assistance to stabilize the family’s physical environment — all of which contribute to a family’s overall well-being and safety. Look for a future blog post on using a multi-generational approach to prevent domestic violence.


Shifting the underlying structures


Lastly, preventing domestic violence isn't just about educating individual people. It's about shifting the underlying structures that allow domestic violence to perpetuate. Our ONLY federal funding to prevent domestic violence is catching on to this idea: the CDC DELTA initiative is focused on strategies that engage influential adults and peers, create protective environments, and strengthen economic supports for families.



There's a hierarchy of needs in life that the recent coronavirus pandemic has made painfully clear. Families are struggling to eat and be housed. People are further at risk for domestic violence under “shelter-in-place” orders. Psychologist Abraham Maslow and the Blackfeet nation, along with men and communities of color, have told us this for decades: When your life is at risk because of poverty, institutionalized violence, unsafe neighborhoods, lack of nutrition, etc., it is extremely difficult to focus on an educational “prevention program." And is it even appropriate? When James Baldwin was asked by an interviewer why he felt more connected by race than profession with other people, his response was brilliant, of course: “It’s hard to focus on the typewriter in front of me when I am afraid for my life all around me.” Your life context is the filter of reality by which you live, whether or not you see the filter.


When your life is at risk because of poverty, institutionalized violence, unsafe neighborhoods, lack of nutrition, etc., it is extremely difficult to focus on an educational “prevention program." And is it even appropriate?

An opportunity to step back and reframe


Please consider this challenging time and confusing pandemic as an opportunity to step back and reframe the inclusivity of your prevention programming. Here's our chance to lift what communities have known for quite some time works to keep their people safe, fed, housed, and well. That must prevent domestic violence, right? In the comments below this post, please share how YOUR program has adapted its efforts. Let your shining work be an inspiration to others.


The SPS team and I want to thank our partners whose work we highlighted in this post, including: Blue Shield Foundation of California and the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. Special thanks to Pat Reyes for her contributions.

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