Many nonprofit organizations are facing a critical question—in an era of desensitized teens in a complex world, how do you make kids care about the issues that matter, like domestic violence?
St. Paul’s Esperanza United, a Latinx-led organization that focuses on ending gender-based violence, fostering community and empowering Latinx leadership, has found a way to get teens to care about gender-based violence.
“We talked about identity and self-esteem, and then we kind of started getting deeper into relationships,” said Beverly Martinez, a youth coordinator for Esperanza United.
Gender-based violence is an epidemic that continues to impact Minnesotans. On average, nearly 35% of law enforcement calls are related to domestic disputes, with 1 in 3 Minnesota women and 1 in 4 men facing some form of abuse from their partner, according to the Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center.
For Nallely Castro Montoya, a prevention and social change manager at the organization, Esperanza United’s impact is widespread.
“We work with the community to have conversations and discussions around how to prevent or how to support somebody that might be in a situation that involves violence,” she said.
The organization’s youth outreach has been so effective that many former members of the youth program, like Montoya, have gone on to work at Esperanza United.
One of the ways the organization connects with youth is through educational programs, like camps, retreats and school visits. Martinez leads the youth programs for students in grades six through 12. In those conversations, they often unpack the relationships in a young person’s life.
“We talked about all these different dynamics of relationships, and how sometimes they can bleed into our friendships and our relationships with our parents,” Martinez said.
Abuse in relationships can present itself in different ways: 48.4% of women and 48.8% of men have experienced at least one form of psychological abuse by a partner in their lifetime, according to the Ananias Foundation. “Maybe you’re not hitting your spouse, but you’re screaming at her, you’re verbally abusing that person. You’ve taken advantage of the money. There’s a lot of ways you can cause harm without hitting someone,” Felix Martinez-Paz, a youth advocate at Esperanza United, said.
As well as teaching young girls the signs of abuse, Esperanza United staff are doing the work to deconstruct gender roles and toxic masculinity. Martinez-Paz helps organize various programs for community members, like fishing, a traditionally masculine activity, to break down gender stereotypes and expectations.
“Sometimes back in their home country, it’s OK to date someone who’s over the age of 18. So, talking to them about the laws that if they’re a minor, they shouldn’t be dating anyone over the age of 18 and how sometimes that can lead into grooming,” Montoya explained.
There are many important pieces in the conversation – parents and kids both need to be engaged to make a lasting impact.
“We did the activities where we provide fishing rods for the whole family, so everybody can have the activity, go fishing, have a conversation on healthy masculinity and spend time together,” Martinez-Paz said.
“That goes back to the gender roles, why can’t women fish? … How we can break those stereotypes, his gender roles and say, ‘Men also wash dishes and take care of the kids.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”
By incorporating activities into the difficult conversations, Martinez-Paz said it allows the children to unwind while they process what they’re learning.
Over the decades, the organization has only gotten stronger.
“I think when I started as a youth participant there was just one person leading the prevention team. Then Felix and myself joined our team, so then there were three. We are a national nonprofit organization. The services that we provide on a national level and the teams grew,” Montoya said.
Esperanza United is doing its part in teaching the youth of the Twin Cities about domestic violence prevention, and that it’s OK to get help and seek support.
“When you’re ready, we’re here for you,” Montoya said.