The program empowering high school students to tackle domestic violence

The program empowering high school students to tackle domestic violence

Dannielle Miller has spent her entire working life teaching teenagers. Not just as a classroom teacher, which is how her career began, but as the founder and CEO of Enlighten Education which delivers training to 20,000 students a year in Australia and New Zealand. It’s fair to say over the years Miller has seen a lot. But earlier this year she saw something she’d never seen before.

A year nine student got up, in front of her whole year group, and explained how she had stayed at a women’s refuge shelter with her mum because her father was violent.

“She stood up and said ‘One thing that really mattered while we were staying there was gift vouchers. It meant we could choose our own undies and toiletries and having that choice felt healing’,” Miller recalls. “For her to have the courage to tell her year group that was incredible. The teachers were in tears and the kids responded really well. Her experience was affirmed – she felt understood.”

The reason this student made this disclosure was because her grade was taking part in a program called Walk The Talk that is being rolled out in 15 schools by Women’s Community Shelters.

By engaging high school students through education and involvement, WCS wants to encourage community engagement and generational change. Walk the Talk, which centres on respectful relationships, is being delivered by Dannielle and her team at Enlighten Education and builds high school student’s awareness of domestic violence and women’s homelessness. The program involving custom workshops is designed to empower students to support the women and children in need in their community by adopting their local shelter.

“We forget sometimes that when we talk to kids about domestic violence we often assume it’s a hypothetical subject but it’s not,” Miller says. “That’s why it’s so important that it is handled carefully with nuance. We don’t want to further alienate kids. We want to give them a sense of hope.”

Over 2000 Sydney students will ‘walk the talk’ this year in 15 schools, each of which has a WCS shelter in the local area.

“It really is a game-changer,” Miller says. “I’ve had over 25 years’ experience working with teens and know that if you truly want to change their behaviour long term, you must not only inform them, but inspire them to put what they have learned into practice.”

The seeds for Walk the Talk, which Miller says is a marriage of so much of the work she has done, were planted back in 2015. She had been feeling overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the dreadful stories that were making the news so regularly.

“Almost every week we were presented with another news story of a woman, and, or her children, being killed at the hands of someone she once loved and trusted,” she says.

Miller was feeling really despondent and a chance read of her local paper, something she says she very rarely did, provided a course of action.

“There was an ad about a meeting that was due to take place regarding establishing a women’s shelter in the area,” she says. “I saw it and knew I needed to go. I felt excited and it was almost selfish because part of the reason I wanted to do something was to not feel so useless in the face of the horrendous statistics.”

Miller wasn’t alone.

“Around 100 people turned up to that meeting so obviously lots of people were feeling the same way,” she says. “I knew I had the skills to make a difference and help make this venture successful.”

She went on to become a founding board member of The Sanctuary – The Hills Women’s Shelter that opened its doors in March of 2016. It is part of the WCS network that currently houses up to 100 women and children on any given night.

One way Miller helped to support The Sanctuary was via a pioneering pilot program she developed that involved getting male students from a local high school, Oakhill College, to support the shelter through fundraising, by creating Welcome Packs for the women and marching against domestic violence.

That provided the impetus for Walk the Talk which WCS CEO Annabelle Daniel says is proactive, innovative and powerful.

“The key thing we wanted to do with this program was go beyond the symbolism and talk,” Daniel says. “You can give people a whole day’s worth of education and they can walk out and make the same mistakes the next day. You have to find a way to practically embed what they have learned.”

Walk the Talk begins with a discussion about positive relationships and is then built from that foundation.

“It’s important for kids to realise domestic violence and abuse doesn’t happen in a nebulous suburb ‘out there’ because people are poor and mean. It happens everywhere and is  something most of us will confront at some point in our lives either through our own family or friends,” Daniel says. “By making it real and tangible and by asking kids to make a difference Walk the Talk embeds the learning in a totally different way. We ask them to take next step – to actually take action and do something.”

Dannielle says it’s critical that Walk the Talk begins with a discussion that isn’t directly about violence or abuse.

“If you just start talking to young people about violence and abusive relationships they might get defensive or feel intimidated,” she says. “We create a safe, nurturing and open environment that makes them feel good about themselves and each other. As the day progresses we introduce the topics that are more daunting.”

Discussing how positive relationships – romantic and otherwise – look and feel has multiple benefits, particularly for girls.

“We know that something that can make girls and women more vulnerable is being socially isolated or not having positive relationships with others,” Miller says. “We know perpetrators of abuse often try to isolate women when they’re in controlling relationships.”

Having that conversation lays the foundation for how DV works and may even help immunise girls before that dynamic can start.

“The second part of the day is when we talk to students about the refuge in their area.   We discuss why it exists and who might need it, before we ask them to consider what kind of support they could give,” Miller says.

The students then break into groups to brainstorming what they would like to help.

“Kids are so creative and the ideas they have are awesome,” Miller says.

After the initial Walk the Talk session, school staff and teachers then work with the students across the course of the year, assisted by WCS, to support the student led initiatives. Student plans already underway include knitting blankets & toys, setting up a box at the school canteen to collect change and growing vegetables in the school grounds for fundraising.

“It’s incredible to see that the small pilot project I ran with just 200 boys a few years ago, has now grown into an army of two thousand teens ready to step up and use their creativity and passion for good to help address a huge societal issue,” Miller says.

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