Skip to content Skip to navigation

The ultimate active bystanders

Dec 9 2014

We must eliminate the culture of silence on campuses across the nation. On my campus, most students do not have a problem admitting that sexual assault occurs, however, the culture surrounding sexual assault makes it an enigmatic issue where bystanders do not feel empowered to do something. As leaders in our communities we have to be the ultimate active bystanders and take initiative to put together engaging programs to tackle this issue and foster sustainable cultural change.

A multi-dimensional approach is needed to combat sexual assault. We must find unique ways to engage our communities in learning this education—whether that’s through theater, small-group discussions, spoken-word, or weekly dorm student panels. After reading Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal, I discovered Forum Theater, a method through which the spectators in the audience become “spect-actors” as they empower themselves to participate in coming up with solutions alongside the performers (Ahrens). To me, Forum Theater held promise in mobilizing students and engaging them in community dialogue and social change. I reached out specifically to interACT, a troupe from California State University Long Beach that would use dramatic techniques to move participants out of the passive spectator role into the active bystander role. Students would get a chance to try out their interventions on stage alongside the performers who stay in character.

Here are some things to think about as you put together your own prevention program:

  • Research: There have been many academic studies regarding how students best learn. Rather than lecture-based formats, interactive formats and small group discussion formats are most effective in getting student involvement and ensuring retention of education. Spend time researching which format may be best for your program’s goals.
  • Ask for advice: Sexual assault affects EVERYONE. Make sure you ask as many people for feedback as possible as you put together your program. I had many student and faculty advisors help in planning the initiative.
  • Conduct focus groups: I met with students over the summer and asked them what they saw as being the most beneficial educational program for sexual assault prevention.
  • Speak to survivors: I reached out to survivors who gave me their feedback as the program plan was shaping up.
  • Talk to administration: I scheduled meetings with our Provost to find out where he saw holes in university programming and his advice on how I could best help.
  • Follow education guidelines: I asked the Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse office and the Title IX office for help in ensuring that the education presented would be up to university and national standards.
  • Outreach: As the program approached, I partnered with various student groups and community centers to promote and market the program. Some integral examples include my partnerships with faculty and student staff from Residential Education, the Associated Students of Stanford University sexual assault task force, Greek life, the Women’s Community Center, the Clayman Institute and the LGBT Community Resource Center. These partnerships ensured that the reach of the program exceeded my personal means, and that students from all niches were informed about the program and emphasis to attend and take initiative came from leadership positions in each community.

As student leaders, we are in a unique moment to champion coordination, public awareness, and community support to combat an issue that has perpetuated human existence for thousands of years. The onus is on us. About 30 audience members were called up to the stage to demonstrate their solutions, and even more actively participated during the audience question and answer sessions. Theevent attracted more than 275 students, and feedback from administration and students was nearly all positive and constructive. We began a deeper dialogue, as attendees said they were more open to taking ownership in sexual assault situations after watching their peers participate in interACT’s show.


A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.