Esta Soler, an expert on violence against women and children, founded Futures Without Violence over 30 years ago and transformed it into one of the world’s leading violence prevention agencies. Soler’s work to prevent violence against women has been featured on MAKERS, an innovative video and documentary project co-presented by PBS to showcase stories from trailblazing women. Recently, Soler delivered a TEDTalk charting 30 years of tactics and technologies — from the Polaroid camera to social media — that have shaped the movement to end domestic violence. Her insight is timely this week as we present the third episode of A Path Appears  [Monday night February 9; check local listings], which focuses in part on domestic violence in the United States (look for an appearance by Soler at the top of the show). Violence against women has been a frequent theme in the news lately following domestic abuse incidents involving NFL players [see FiveThirtyEight piece, “The Rate of Domestic Violence Cases Among NFL Players“].

Soler spoke with us about the issue, both within the sports community and far beyond.

We’ve come a long way with domestic violence but it’s still in the headlines, lately most famously (or infamously) with pro athletes — where can we go next there?

I’ve said repeatedly that we want these guys to succeed on the field but we want to make sure they succeed off the field. And we are concerned we don’t spend enough time in our middle school and high school years focusing on respect and healthy relationships, giving people the tools so they can have healthy relationships. It’s not rocket science, what it is is a real belief that you can do something, give people the tools, and also a belief that it’s important to do that. The climate in our schools should really address these issues of how people treat each other both online and offline. If an adult sees behavior that isn’t acceptable, that the adult definitely steps in and says what’s right and not right. Also, that kids do it for each other as well. It’s much more complicated for a peer to step up and stand out in a crowd, particularly during adolescence, it’s a very tough period of time. Adults need to model what the right behavior is for young people. 

So right now we have a crisis in some of our sports leagues, particularly in the NFL, there are so many of these guys who are getting in trouble, getting arrested for domestic violence and child abuse and sexual assault, and again I think we can’t wait ‘til the point where they arrive on the field.

We need to start doing the work about what behavior is acceptable and not acceptable. Holding people accountable when they do bad things in middle and high school and college; Otherwise this pattern that we’re seeing now in the news with football players getting in so much trouble is going to keep happening. You can prevent it, though. Listen, I’m an optimist. I believe you can prevent it, but you can’t prevent it just by saying you want to prevent it, you have to put actual programs in place.

William Gay from the Pittsburgh Steelers talking about his personal experience with domestic violence and his commitment to end abuse. Footage taken from Future Without Violence’s ‘Somebody Stood Up For Me’ summit in Los Angeles:

So what do schools need to be doing more of to give us a more positive future?

First of all I think schools need to make sure that they’re committed to giving a positive school climate, so that bullying,pushing people, hurting and harassing people, are not acceptable, and that [everyone from] the superintendent to principals to teachers reinforce that. And then I think there are specific programs that need to be put in place. We have one program I’m really proud of called Coaching Boys into Men, which is for male athletes and is one of the only programs out there — there are other good ones out there, too, though, not just our program — but the one good thing about CBiM is CDC [Center for Disease Control] funded an evaluation of it and it found after a randomized control trial, a rigorous evaluation, saw that it reduced date violence while improving bystander behavior (standing up to something that’s wrong).  It’s the kind of program, along with others like MVP and Green Dot, that can really make a difference in our schools.

And what about younger women and girls, as far as their self esteem and working with them on that, which is another component of this.

That’s right, and there are programs out there focused on that. We actually did a program with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that put in place two curricula in schools: “Safe Dates” and “Fourth R: Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic and Relationships” that dealt with those issues. And one of the things we found is that [with] the girls there was more gender equality in the schools doing the program than in the schools that weren’t. It is a central issue tied to whether or not violence exists.

Do you have goals in the future that you are striving for, ‘in ten years I’d like to see us…’?

I’m a data nerd and always set goals. And the first thing we did when we did the Violence Against Women Act in ‘94 is say we need to start collecting data, because we said if we’re going to spend tax dollars for this we want to be able to see whether or not we’re making a difference. And what we now know is that it has made a difference; there was a 64% decline for adult domestic violence, but we also know we haven’t done as well with our young people. So the metrics I’m now holding our own organization and the rest of our country (in terms of legislative action) accountable to is that we need to absolutely stop college sexual assault, domestic violence on college campuses, and all the bad things going on in our schools from bullying to social isolation to harassment. Can we do it? Absolutely. This is not rocket science, this is about will. It’s about accountability. It’s about really setting the value over what is acceptable behavior. And the adults have a lot to do here.

I know people are tracking domestic violence cases where children are involved specifically. Could you talk more about that?

Right, that’s a big issue for us. Because if you witness it and you’re learning it, we’ve got to help them figure out how to un-learn that. Because norms are learned, they’re reinforced. It’s important to undo that. One thing we’ve learned when we’ve put these programs in place, the kids who actually come from more complicated environments with more adversity are more engaged with these programs perhaps because they need them a little bit more.

For a lot of the pro athletes involved in these cases, do they come from backgrounds where they were abused or saw abuse as children?

Well, let’s say this — if one in four women are a victim of domestic violence case in their lifetime, and one in five young women are raped on college campuses, the numbers are staggering and the likelihood that somebody came from a home or community or school where someone saw this bad behavior is pretty high. On the other hand it’s not necessarily that you grow up in a home where you witness violence and had the big label, [either] a Victim or a Perpetrator. However, you are more at risk as it becomes part of the pattern. I don’t believe that because it happened in your home you’re going to do bad things, [but] it’s a risk factor.

In pop culture or culture in general (media, music, games, etc), there’s a lot of discussion about how these relationships are depicted and what effect that has. I know no one wants to get into a censorship mode, but what do you know about how this has been researched and where the conversations are now?

You’re right, it’s very complicated. Many years ago when Eminem was nominated for a major award [for the song “Stan”] and the song’s lyrics included a part about a guy chopping his girlfriend up and putting her in the trunk. I remember doing a radio show with Michael Krasny (KQED Forum) and with the head of the ACLU of Northern California, who is a friend. What I got at and what we want to get at is to influence the process and the companies and the purchasing power so that the rewards are not there, but it is tricky to get into “you cannot say that” in the United States. What we did say was more, “You should not get an award for saying that.” Which is a distinction. I really do believe we have the right to do things, unless it leads to somebody getting killed.

But our media is filled with these kinds of examples in modern day, our video games are filled with complicated but gratuitous violence. When you read a book or go to a film, it’s a complicated experience, there’s a texture to it, you’re with and underneath the characters and going on a journey.  But when you’re doing this over and over again in a very quick-hit way that’s disrespectful, I think it’s different.

And how we grapple with that as a society, I think the best way to do that is to have this kind of conversation, in a much more public way. Because I’ve seen a lot of failed attempts where people go the censorship route. But I don’t think we’re talking about it enough, I don’t think people understand the real impact that stuff has on the teen brain and on teen development. We just need more conversation. It’s much more pervasive than it was when I was growing up or even when you were growing up.

And since you mentioned the importance of having conversations, is that basically what you’re doing with the high school athletic coaches forum you mentioned, Coaching Boys into Men?

Right. That program really engages the high school athletic coaches into having conversations about all of these issues. And you know coaches are so important in the life of an athlete. My daughter played a number of sports and she spent way more time with her coaches than she did with her parents. At a certain point she was looking up them more than she was looking up to us [laughs] — that’s just life.

And athletes are often the group of kids in high school and in college who are the big people on campus. I mean you have your student government folks, your academics and scientists, but then you have the athletes who control a lot of what is normative on that campus. They’re an important group to have in conversation on these issues.

Any chance of then working with professional sports as the next step?

Yes, we’re currently talking to the NFL and are in conversation with folks from the major sports leagues. I never ever thought when I started this in the late 80s that 35 years later I’d be spending much of the fall talking to sportswriters and to people in major league sports. But if you really want a campaign to change norms, I can’t think of a better place to do it.

It’s been a lot of progress. We’ve done a lot since 1994 — I was on my way to Washington to celebrate the passage of and success we’ve had with the Violence Against Women Act, when some of the Ray Rice video was released. The release of that video and the outrage of the public after seeing it was a turning point. And most of the people I spoke to in the media were men, male sportswriters, and they were appalled. And 20 years ago? It was a different conversation I was having.