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News > Commentary - Learning when to intervene, help others
Learning when to intervene, help others

Posted 9/10/2008   Updated 9/16/2008 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Susan M. Barone
88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

9/10/2008 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The first time I heard about bystander apathy was in social psychology class in college. 

Bystander apathy is where people alone or in a group see a crime or emergency taking place in front of them and elect not to act because: a) they think someone else will respond; b) they are afraid of getting hurt themselves (in the case of an attack); or c) they fear appearing foolish since no one else has responded. 

I think of one example that gained quite a bit of media attention: the recent footage on CNN of Esmin Green, 49, who died while waiting in a hospital emergency room. Surveillance video showed a number of people walking around her, yet no one stopped to check on her. She was lying with her face down on the floor. How could someone walk by and not check on her? 

I always thought people were just plain uncaring and cruel if they saw a crime or saw that someone needed help and did nothing. In comparison, I imagined myself in the role of a super hero, calling the police or "911," or, as in the case of emergency, offering my assistance no matter the personal risk. I would not walk by though and do nothing. 

You might think you, too, would act if it were something that was happening on the street or near your home you, but let's change the setting to the workplace. What if you witnessed an exchange between two people in your office that sounded like sexual harassment to you? What if you were drawn into conversation and learned that a coworker was sexually assaulted? What would you do? Would you let it go think someone else will act or would you offer assistance and support? 

I believe that people won't always act in a situation because it may mean that they could become a target themselves and face isolation, rejection from colleagues -- or worse -- become "that person" whatever "that" is, of course. 

Intervening on behalf of someone could very well lead to those things, but not if you band together. This is the message I came away when I volunteered to attend the morning session of an experimental Air Force program Tuesday that is meant to empower people to act when they see behavior that makes for an unsafe workplace, whether it involves sexual harassment or assault. The Air Force is taking the lead in thinking about the problem of sexual violence within its ranks and wants to take a system-wide approach, according to speaker Gail Stern, co-founder and education director for Catharsis Productions.
Stern said the focus of the Air Force Bystander Intervention Program is not to teach risk reduction for those who might become victims of sexual assault or harassment, but rather it is intended for the person who isnĘžt involved in the situation: a bystander. 

Stern has been involved in sexual assault prevention and education since 1991 and works as a sexual assault prevention curriculum and training consultant to the Air Force as well as the U.S. Naval Academy among other areas of service. Two other sessions took place during that time, with sessions repeated in the afternoon. One session was for men and was facilitated by Jeff O'Brien, director of Mentors in Violence Prevention National. (MVP is a multi-racial, mixed-gender program focused toward enlisting high school, collegiate and professional athletes in the fight against all forms of men's violence against women.) 

Another session was for leaders and was facilitated by Anne Munch, a professional speaker, trainer and consultant who specializes in preventing sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. We volunteers were asked to provide as much feedback as we could muster in order to assist the facilitators in developing training content and delivery. 

I came away from this training with this thought: While not everyone may relate to what it is to become a victim of sexual violence, everyone can understand what a bystander is and that there's a possibility that each one of us might witness something where he or she can act to make a difference. 

The session I sat in on was about three hours, but could have taken the whole day and I wouldn't have minded (which is saying a lot since I -- like a lot of people -- do not like meetings.) In fact, I left feeling charged up because of a change in viewpoint. When people are put in a situation -- one that's either criminal or emergency in nature -- they don't have to think of acting alone to try to render aid, but rather can reach out and ask for assistance from others. 

Similarly, in the workplace, we all can take responsibility and help if we witness unprofessional behavior, instead of allowing what Stern called an "informal hazing process" to go on and "form a callus" so that it becomes tolerated where we're working. 

I wrote down five things gleaned from the training that Stern shared that should help people/bystanders respond. They are to: 

-  Identify a situation as a problem 
-  Believe they have the capacity to help 
-  See that it's their responsibility 
-  Not worry about what other people will think of them (okay, this one maybe is understood by a "people-pleaser" like me) - and most of all 
-  Have courage. 

Stern said that the small things we tolerate often escalate into bigger things in our workplaces. We can choose to intervene and stop our coworkers, our friends, our "wingmen" from inappropriate behavior, aggression and otherwise unsafe situations. In so doing, we take back our workplace and make it a safe place to come to every day, improving morale and our mission-readiness in the process. 

It's all about supporting our wingmen, making our corner of the Air Force a good example of what people can do when they band together.

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