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An Awesome Bystander Moment – From Victim to Survivor… to Teacher

My Body Is Not Public SpaceSo, I was sitting here at my desk, dredging my brain for blog posts.  You’d think I’d be a natural blogger—I can blog for MYSELF like nobody’s business (years of me rambling on LiveJournal can attest to that).  But I find when I am blogging for an agency, I get the writing equivalent of tongue-tied (finger-twisted?).

I came up with and discarded a few approaches—how about that “binders full of women” comment from the debate last night?  Well, that’s not really about bystanders, is it?  I looked at news-feeds on women’s issues, I got myself some tea… I thought some more. What came into my head was a strong memory about an amazing woman.  So I decided to share the memory.

About a year and a bit ago, I was running a group at our domestic violence shelter.  The week before, I had done a class about awareness and assertiveness skills.  This week, I had just asked the group members whether something had happened to them between that group and this one that had given them a moment of inspiration or hope.  People who come to stay in a shelter are in hard and stressful times of their lives… sometimes hope is hard to come by.  I wondered what—if anything—any of the women would have to say.  I thought it might be awkward if there was just a sad and stolid silence.

Instead, all the women had amazing stories!

The first story is the one I want to share – this woman… we’ll call her Sarah (I don’t use real names) stuck her hand up in excitement and said, “I have something!  Let me go first!”  She said, “I was standing at a BART stop,” (Bay Area Rapid Transit—a sort of subway-like setup, for those out-of-area readers) “…and while I was waiting for the train, I watched this young girl.  She was maybe 20, looked shy.  And there was this older man who was making comments at her, talking about her legs.  You could tell she was really not liking it but she was too scared to say anything.”

Sarah was animated when telling her story, gesturing with her hands, really bringing the scene to life. You could just see the shy young woman and the man standing in her space, being too close, making her feel intimidated and uncomfortable.

Sarah added, “So at one point, the guy turns away to take a phone call on his cell.  I remember our class last week about assertiveness being ‘teaching someone else how you want to be treated.’  So I go over to the girl and I say, ‘Excuse me, but it looks like that guy is bothering you.  Is he?’  The girl nods and says yes…”

Sarah paused for effect, then said proudly, “So I told her, ‘You don’t have to put up with that!  If he bothers you again, you can look him in the eye and say, “When you talk like that to me, you are really bothering me.  I need you to stop or I will call BART security.”’

The whole class—and I—were really excited for her.  Sarah had been in a domestic violence relationship for years—she said the idea of standing up for herself had never been an option.  But here she was, helping a total stranger out by paying forward what she’d learned about assertiveness.  It would be pretty cool if the story stopped there, but it didn’t!  Because then Sarah said…

“The guy got off his cell-phone call and went right back to harassing the girl.  AND SHE TURNED TO HIM AND SAID, ‘I need you to stop harassing me or I’ll call security!’”

“WHAT HAPPENED?” we all asked in the group.

“He LEFT HER ALONE!” said Sarah… and she laughed in pride and amazement.  And we all broke into applause.  I will never forget her—her courage and her open heart.

Being a good bystander can be so many things.  ONE thing it can be is not only helpful and healing to the person who is being harassed… it can be empowering and healing for the bystander AS WELL.

Do YOU have any stories about a time you stood up for somebody else?

Leave a comment


  1. kmp

     /  October 18, 2012

    Your post reminds me of something I just learned about from an incredible friend of mine. My friend is a confidant, strong woman and told a story about an unfortunate experience she recently had in a nightclub in San Francisco. I don’t feel comfortable retelling her tale without her permission, but I learned about the Red/Yellow Card project through her story (http://singlevoice.net/redyellow-card-project/). The idea behind these cards is to give the offender a card indicating that they have engaging in inappropriate behavior with the person who handed them the card. These cards are “meant to be a non-confrontational way of engaging with harassment.” The main idea being is that sometimes telling someone to leave you alone isn’t enough. Sometimes they may think you are being coy or not being serious, and it isn’t until you hand them something that they can keep, that they can read over and over again, that the message may stick. I still feel sick to my stomach that cards like this might be needed, but I greatly appreciate the thought behind these cards. These cards can help empower a person to stand up for oneself rather than being “accommodating and polite in the face of harassment.”

    • Hey there! What an interesting idea! It’s a fascinating alternative way of getting a message across that does not have to involve verbally engaging with a harasser. What is also interesting is further down in the comments on the yellow card project link you posted is a link to ANOTHER project called the Backup Ribbon Project. This one is specifically for bystanders — wearing the ribbon or wearing the shirt means that the person WILL engage to help someone if they see harassment happening, etc. It’s sort of a commitment to stepping up and taking action when that seems necessary or helpful. As someone who is–not in my day-job–a bit of a science fiction geek, it’s really cool to see various efforts in fandom circles to promote healthy relationships, healthy public spaces, and healthy bystander intervention. Thanks so much for sharing this! It’s making the wheels in my head spin!

      For the record, here is the link to the “Backup Ribbon Project” as well.


      • kmp

         /  October 18, 2012

        Yes! I saw the information about the Backup Ribbon Project as well. And whereas I think it’s a most excellent idea for a convention, I’m dubious that the Backup Ribbon Project would translate well to everyday life. I guess one of the reasons I liked the cards so much is that I can see them being used anywhere at anytime. But the idea of a “Backup” shirt that can be worn at any time…. 🙂

  2. Agreed that the Backup shirt/ribbon might be a little more specialized. On the other hand, nothing wrong with multiple approaches for multiple venues, I guess!

  3. Jean

     /  October 23, 2012

    The “Back-up” Ribbon Project might be of good use in schools especially if it is started in elementary schools. Gets kids thinking about standing up for others as well as feeling comfortable asking others for help.

  4. Jean

     /  October 23, 2012

    I really liked this story! :0)


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