Changing the conversation about domestic violence

Part of a map depicting systems involved in domestic violence

A behind-the-scenes look at our campaign to shift perceptions

It’s hard to think differently.
About anything.
Especially something that’s scary.
You might not think about domestic violence, ever. Or, you might live with it every day.

I’ve learned a lot about this recently.
Two years ago, I came to Blue Shield of California Foundation that works to end domestic violence.

Great mission, I thought. I’m all for that.

At the time, I didn’t have much background in DV, as we call it.

A novice, at first

I had done an internship in college with a battered women’s advocacy program in St. Paul, Minn. I remember the formal language everyone adopted in court. Instead of “getting out of the car,” people were always “exiting the vehicle.”

The situations were pretty sad. No one was having their best day. Other than the time I spent shadowing Hope, one of the advocates, in court, I wasn’t involved in the cases. So, I didn’t know much about the people themselves, or their stories before that day.

What I observed were grown men and women, mostly straight couples, from all racial and ethnic groups. They were in real relationships, where domestic violence was one part of their lives, but not the whole thing. I saw that there is love, history, good, and bad in all relationships, including those with domestic violence.

But in court, the story was one dimensional. The women were seeking restraining orders. The men denied it. The women insisted. The judge sided with one or the other. Sometimes the children were there.

I was fortunate that domestic violence hadn’t been in my life. But my husband’s family had a story. That makes me like one out of two Californians — having experienced DV directly or indirectly through someone you know and love.

But that’s not a credential for my job. So, I came here a novice in the field.

The conversation people aren’t having

One thing I noticed right away is the well-observed fact that basically no one talks about domestic violence.

It’s not a topic that comes up socially. We talk about our families, jobs, holidays, and hobbies. We converse about the climate, elections, sports, and other current events, pleasant and not.

You’d think with domestic violence affecting so many of us, it would come up. Of course, it’s in there, in the family talk. Sometimes in blazing absence. Sometimes only with confidants. It’s so private, what happens.

A common occurrence, but not a common topic.

When the conversation does surface, it’s catastrophic. The murder, the courtroom drama, the missing person. The sensational ending to a story with no beginning or middle.

Pull back, widen the lens. That’s my job — to help people see the surroundings as they think about domestic violence. How did the story get to that crisis point? What happened before the end?

What are the factors that lead to such heart-breaking, maddening situations?

Well, for one thing, our society prizes violence and dominance. It’s everywhere — in our language, our stories, our heroes. We also have rigid gender norms, and even though these vary across cultures, women are often subordinate to men. Men are expected to dominate others and be in charge. Don’t get me started on our ideas about romance. Being swept off your feet, never giving up, accepting that love hurts, that love is possession.

That’s only the beginning.

Domestic violence is a public health issue

The Foundation has been working on domestic violence for a long time. Getting to the root causes. Determining that breaking the cycle by working across generations is the key. To heal families. To prevent domestic violence from happening in the first place.

It is a long haul. Prevention always goes back — or ahead — generations. The same is true for many public health issues. And make no mistake, domestic violence is a public health issue. DV is about equity — just like housing, food security, transportation, access to care, and simply having enough time and money to meet your family’s needs.

Seen through this lens, it becomes clearer that these problems share the same root causes, namely racism and gender and economic inequities. They disproportionately affect communities of color with low incomes. To end domestic violence, the systems that hold those root causes in place must be dislodged.

It would really help if more people understood. So, how to popularize these ideas? It’s complicated. Plus, hardly anyone wants to talk — or hear — about domestic violence anyway. It is a challenge.

Changing the conversation

That’s the challenge that the communications team at the Foundation took on this year. We wanted to start changing the conversation about domestic violence.

We developed a project North Star: We believe that ending domestic violence requires changing the conversation about it. We want to create a world where people treat domestic violence as a health equity issue and a multigenerational cycle that can be prevented.

We set a top project goal: Identify opportunities to change the way our society talks about domestic violence, so that the Foundation’s prevention and healing strategies can have greater impact.

First, we talked to people who do the work. Our grantees and partners who have a wealth of experience and shrewd perspectives on the issue. They are specialists and very good at what they do. They are a fit group of captains, steering boats against the current. Despite their expertise, deep knowledge, and commitment, domestic violence hasn’t gone away. They told us their strategies to heal and prevent it are facing strong headwinds. The going is slow. The conversation that most people are having — or not having — is still far away from their work.

We also did desk research, read up on reports, articles, polls, and media coverage — much of which we have supported with grantmaking over the years. It’s still an understudied topic, but there is progress. Today, polling shows that Californians understand domestic violence is broad and that the current solutions are not enough.

Naturally, we talked extensively to our own Foundation experts, bending their ears constantly for advice and check ins. They cautioned us to avoid putting the focus on individuals, because individual problems call for individual solutions — but we need systems change to end DV.

Finally, we held focus groups of Californians to help test some ideas and assumptions and hear from regular people about what attracts and repels them when it comes to talking about domestic violence. The prevalence data got their attention, and from there they wanted sincere and straightforward information. Some of them wanted to take action. Many of them had experienced domestic violence themselves.

Our exploration took the better part of a year. We learned a lot.

We believe that ending domestic violence requires changing the conversation about it. We want to create a world where people treat domestic violence as a health equity issue and a multigenerational cycle that can be prevented.

It was a privilege to gather all that information and so many strong opinions and lived experiences and apply them to the goal of changing the conversation about domestic violence. What was that going to mean? How would we do it? These questions kept us up at night. Our partners in this endeavor at Daylight Design were irreplaceable, with their systems thinking, research skills, and ability to synthesize massive amounts of input and take it to the next step.

This October, a first step

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and we are offering a first step toward changing the conversation: We are starting where people are. Everyday Californians are not experts, but they are not novices, either. We are going to learn from them. Is the website interesting? Which parts? We have a good degree of confidence, and faith that our process was credible. But, you never know until you try.

I hope that when you go to, you will be drawn in. The tone of the site is soft and approachable. Serious and hopeful. We hope it feels real to you. We hope it will start to shift your perceptions. The site has three themes:

Domestic violence is everywhere. It is healable. And, preventable.

As you click through, we want it to be easy to traverse a variety of facts, stories, ideas, and solutions. You’ll learn how broad domestic violence is, how people are working in their communities to heal from it, and how major systems like housing and government funding are critical to preventing it. You’ll see some of the Foundation’s outstanding grantees. You’ll be invited to reflect, share, learn more, and act. We all can do something to end domestic violence.

I am grateful for so many aspects of this project. The opportunity to strengthen domestic violence prevention work with complementary communications strategy. The resources to learn and experiment. Collaboration with leading minds and skippers charting the course of change on this issue that often lies below the surface. Domestic violence deserves all that and more. I hope that this October we inspire others to get involved, and start to shift the winds so that current will flow in the right direction.

Let’s talk about domestic violence. So we can end it.

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