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I recently attended two bystander intervention trainings by Right To Be, a program out of New York. The first training in this series of three was on being a bystander to interrupt islamophobic violence, which I was unfortunately not able to attend. The second and third trainings focused on the violence and harassment that disabled and LGBTQ+ people experience, and strategies for being an active bystander.  

I remember learning about the Bystander Effect in college, and how, although most of us would like to imagine ourselves stepping in when someone is being harassed or harmed, we’re statistically unlikely to. This information is pretty disheartening, and doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities to change these common behavior patterns. 

One thing I loved about the Right To Be trainings was the validation of the many reasons that someone might not intervene in a situation where someone else is experiencing violence or harassment. Some of the reasons we talked about were: “no one else is doing anything,” “I’m afraid of making things worse,” “I don’t know what to do,” and “I’m afraid of becoming a victim of violence myself.” 

We were asked to choose which, if any, of these reasons prevented us from taking action. On an anonymous poll, the majority of people said that they were worried about experiencing violence themselves.

This was really important for me to realize. When we hear about the Bystander Effect, and the fact that most people do not take action to intervene in instances of violence, it’s easy to take this to mean something negative about our character as human beings. This does nothing to help us identify strategies for being an active bystander, and only leads us to feel less able to support someone experiencing violence. 

The reasons we may not step in come from very real concerns for our own safety, not knowing how we can help, and worrying that we could escalate or worsen the situation. These are serious considerations that might shape our response to an instance of violence or harassment.

Before these trainings, I also had a particular image in my mind about what an active bystander looked like. It was someone who stood up on the bus when someone was being harassed, put themselves physically in the way of an altercation, or shouted at an assailant to back off. 

This is just one form of bystander intervention, which falls under one of the “5 Ds,” “Direct.” Taking direct action is probably the first form of intervention we imagine, which can feel daunting and likely risky to our own wellbeing, especially as survivors of violence. Direct action is not always the best approach to interrupt violence, and luckily, there are many other ways to be an active bystander that might feel safer and more attainable in real-life situations. 

All 5 Ds of bystander intervention include: 

  • Distract: being creative and causing a distraction to diffuse the situation (ex: pretending you know the person being harassed and asking them something unrelated to the situation, loudly dropping a water bottle)
  • Delay: holding off on your actions until after the threat has passed, then checking in with the person being harassed, offering support
  • Delegate: getting others involved to diffuse a situation (ex: asking the bus driver to step in, making a formal report IF the person who experienced the violence wants that)
  • Document: recording (either by video, or text) the incident, then making sure that this documentation is in the hands of the person who was victimized, rather than spread online
  • Direct: directly interrupting an instance of violence (ex: speaking up that something isn’t right)

The training facilitator asked us to think about which of the 5 Ds was our “superpower” as we practiced with some scenarios. What I loved about this was seeing that my instinctive responses to a situation (to call in others for help, to check in with the person afterward and find out what they need), ARE forms of bystander intervention, even if they are not direct. These are actions that don’t necessarily look like bystander intervention, and can sometimes be even more effective that way. 

This challenged my initial assumption that I needed to behave in a certain way in order to be an active bystander. And I think it may be a relief to a lot of other folks who have marginalized identities and/or have experienced violence: you DON’T have to be the person who gets directly involved in an altercation in order to be a bystander. You should always consider your own safety when engaging, and there may be strategies you can use that feel safer. 

But I also worried: what if it isn’t enough? What if I wait until after the threat has passed, and the person asks me, “why didn’t you do something?” 

It’s possible that this might happen. At the same time, there is no one perfect response, and no right answer. The facilitator reminded us that the majority of people don’t do anything when witnessing violence or harassment. Most people are passive bystanders. So choosing to do something, including indirect forms of bystander intervention, means we are part of the 25% of people who do act. The point is to do something, even though it doesn’t change the fact that someone experienced violence. 

I found learning these skills an empowering reminder of how we can all do something, even something small, to intervene. And many of us are probably already acting as active bystanders without even realizing it–checking in with a friend after someone misgendered them, changing the subject when a conversation becomes uncomfortable for someone present, or leaving a review about an employee who made discriminatory comments so that other people can be aware of potential dangers. Thinking ahead about our instinctive responses, and making plans for how we can engage when something happens, help us to prevent violence and build safer communities.