Seeing green

Jennifer Messina-Photo provided

Jennifer Messina-Photo provided

There’s been a lot of talk about green dots lately — and red dots. The phrase “green dot” might sound like social-worker speak, but the message of the concept really comes down to one thing.

Starting now, starting today, starting with a group of civic leaders, there is a new attitude in town.

“If you want to perpetuate violence, Homer is not the place for you. It will not be tolerated,” said Jennifer Messina, director of training and development for Green Dot, a national sexual violence prevention program.

That’s the ultimate goal of Green Dot, and the cultural shift the program seeks to make in Homer and other Alaska communities.

Under a grant from the city of Homer, last Friday Messina spoke at an introduction for Green Dot. Messina has been working with South Peninsula Haven House to slowly roll out the program. She spoke to a group that included men and women, social workers, school board members, politicians, cops, ministers, hospital officials and teachers. Later that day Messina started training with Green Dot facilitators. Over the next few weeks the trainers will practice their training and then begin training other groups.

The term “green dot” refers to points on a map. If police want to track incidents of rape or domestic violence, they put red dots on a map. A green dot is an incident where sexual violence is averted — that’s the training. The idea is to replace red dots with green dots, Messina said.

Messina started her talk with a narrative of despair. A therapist, she worked 15 years at a college counseling center.

“What I ended up doing every single day was working with men and women who intersected with violence,” she said.

If she had hope, Messina said, it was that people could recover from their trauma.

“It never crossed my mind that we could keep people from being hurt in the first place,” she said.

Then Messina heard Dorothy Edwards, author of the Green Dot violence prevention strategy, speak on the idea.

“I remember this thing just cracking open,” Messina said. “Of course our rates of violence don’t make sense. Of course we can reduce them, not in generations or decades, but now.”

That seems like a huge cultural change, but culture changes all the time, Messina said. Fashion changes. Music changes. Slang changes. Technology changes.

“Don’t tell me culture doesn’t change. Of course it does,” she said. “How does that happen?”

For example, one big cultural change is Facebook. How did Mark Zuckerman get Facebook rolling? Messina asked. Zuckerman didn’t make the culture change. He created a system for a cultural change — “Hey, here’s this social media thing. It takes three minutes to sign up.” Several of Zuckerman’s friends signed up and then their friends signed up and then hundreds and then thousands and then millions.

“When did it happen?” Messina asked. “What I know for sure is the entire cultural phenomena was taken up in these individual moments to take three minutes.”

Violence is like that. A red dot on a map, an incident of violence, is when somebody chooses to contribute to violence in some way, Messina said.

“One red dot is three minutes it takes to belittle or berate your partner,” she said.

A red dot is when someone hears his neighbors fighting and doesn’t know what to do, so he turns up the music really loud.

“That choice is a red dot,” Messina said.

A green dot is no different. It’s 3 minutes to take a simple action.

For example, a student at the University of Kentucky told her of an incident at a house party. He saw a guy taking a really drunk woman upstairs to the designated room where couples had sex. He knew it wasn’t OK for the woman — she was too drunk to consent.

“So he just called upstairs, ‘Dude, your car is getting towed.’ He comes out, the girls go up and get the woman out,” she said. “Was there a big man-to-man? No. Was there one less assault? Indeed.”

That’s the idea behind Green Dot: learning how to take simple actions that prevent violence. Messina called those “reactive dots,” taking an action as needed. 

“Obviously, we want to learn how to do that. We don’t want to wait for violence to happen. The way we can out community as safe as can be is to keep violence from happening,” she said.

That means educating people about sexual violence and creating a culture that won’t tolerate it. Actions to do that Messina called “daily dots.” The people in the audience at last Friday’s meeting are the start to do that, she said. They made a choice to come learn about Green Dot — that’s a daily dot.

The Green Dot strategy has three main parts, Messina said: direct, delegate and distract — the three D’s.

• “Direct” means interacting with people who might be involved in potential violence. If you hear someone arguing loudly, you might knock on the door and say, “Is everything OK?”

• “Delegate” means calling someone else if you don’t feel comfortable. Sometimes that means calling the cops, but it also can mean calling resources like Haven House or contacting family members to intervene in domestic violence.

• “Distract” is the creative approach, like with the guy who told the potential rapist that his car was being towed. Messina gave another example where she heard a couple arguing loudly in a parking lot. Messina went up to them and said she’d locked her keys in her car and needed to borrow a cell phone.

Messina said the Green Dot strategy isn’t “fluffy optimism.” It is and can be effective.

“This violence isn’t like cancer where we don’t have any idea what the cure might be,” she said. “I know the cure. Tomorrow the rates of violence in our community could be dramatically lower if the folks who agree with us know violence isn’t OK.”

Nonviolent people outnumber violent people by 20 to 1, she said. All it takes is for the nonviolent people to stand between the violent people and say, “Actually, that’s not going to happen.”

After Messina got involved in the Green Dot program, her perspective on sexual violence changed, and she began to see hope.

“At some point the violence tipped,” she said. “I now carry more stories of the violence that didn’t happen than the violence that did.”

That’s the goal.

“We’re going to create more moments of safety than more moments of harm. We’re going to outnumber the red dots,” Messina said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

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