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Thought Leaders Weigh Issues of Violence and Reconciliation

When the conversation is between a senior advisor to the NFL and a canonical social justice scholar, it's time to pay attention. And when the subject is “Ending Violence: How We Change,” the whole makes for compelling listening.

The topic engaged author bell hooks and sociologst Beth Richie, who is one of the NFL’s advisors on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, at an April 22 event during hooks’ week-long residency on campus. 

“It is important to recognize that we sit in a moment,” said Richie, “where we can claim lots of success in the movement to end violence if we narrowly define the movement as being a proposition of ending male violence against women, defined by certain episodic events.” Her opening words were enough to make the crowd lean in.

The NFL, aware of its influence as a large and prominent organization, takes its stance on violence very seriously, says Richie. A professor of African-American studies, women’s and gender studies, criminology, law, justice, and sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, she is able to approach the topic of violence at its intersection with all these fields through a multiplicity of lenses.

And as a one-time student of bell hooks herself, she shares with her mentor a history of parallel interests. 

“Domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, incest – if we just talk about how we’ve decreased the incident rates of certain kinds of violence, I think we can say we have made some progress. And that’s important.” Richie explained. “What we haven’t done well enough yet is to talk about violence more as a systemic problem.”

hooks echoed these thoughts as she focused on the intricate patterns evident where violence persists – patterns that often play out across generations. For her, the issue is never binary. Individuals can be – and often are – both victim and perpetrator. 

“The ‘mean guys’ have been victimized and the victims are often cruel to other people,” she says. “We’ve created this sort of false dichotomy, and really, no person is one or the other.”

hooks went on to note the importance in establishing social “circles of love.” That is, people need to focus less on the shaming and the secrecy of violence, and instead on opening dialogues of warmth and understanding for all involved. 

“When you say these things, you offer the person the possibility that they can change. That there is reunion, that they can be received back in.”  

Hurt people hurt people, Richie summarized. Her current, multi-million dollar research project examines women and youth issues at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility in New York, noting the interplay between systemic issues of poverty, domestic abuse, and rates of arrest and incarceration. If there was only one thing she took away from this research, she said, it would be how privileged she was compared to those with whom she worked day to day: 

“I feel like my obligation, because I can stay back, is to go forward, to witness it, to be as in it as I try to be.

“I get to leave the prison every Thursday at three. I get to wrap up my group at the juvenile detention center and go home to a loving partner and our daughter. And I get to hear their brilliance and enrich my life by their strength.” 

Together, the women stressed the importance of building people up rather than removing them from society. The best results, they said, came from thinking both critically and creatively on social issues.  

“Sometimes I think people feel like ‘Well, that’s just too big a job to do. I can’t possibly do that,’ ” Richie says. “Sometimes we think we can’t do it because we start with the hardest problems rather than the easiest. It’s really not that hard to say that, on this campus, or in this dorm or in this family, we’re going to have a different set of values about how we interact with each other. 

“We can really start small and close to where we live. I think if we all just did a little bit of something, then it would spread out.”   

May 5, 2015