By Nikki Desario, loveisrespect.org National Youth Advisory Board
Hi, my name is Nicole. I am 16 and a loveisrespect.org National Youth Advisory Board member from Montgomery, NJ. I have worked on the issue of teen dating violence education for over a year. I started out by getting involved in the passing of Safe Dating legislation in my state last year. As I was campaigning for the passage of that law, I decided to do something more concrete. I developed a program that I held during our state’s first “Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month” last February. It was a great success and gave me the incentive to create something sustainable to continue to address the issue.
To that end, I went to my school with the idea of starting a club to specifically deal with teen dating violence education. It was a long process getting everything set up, but it has been worth the effort. The club, “MASK Theater” is really thriving now. MASK stands for Montgomery Advocates for Solidarity and Kindness. We are students trained in relationship abuse education by a local domestic violence support agency. We use techniques like videos, music, poetry and theatrical performances in order to get our message across. We feel that using presentations with media that youth can relate to keeps their attention and communicates the message more effectively. MASK members are from diverse backgrounds, making the group more welcoming and relatable.
As a member of the loveisrespect.org National Youth Advisory Board (NYAB), it has been a pleasure to work with others from around the country who are so dedicated to teen dating violence prevention. It is an opportunity to unite the activists in our country who share the same vision. They have been so supportive of my work with MASK; in fact, just a couple months ago, several members of the NYAB came to Washington, D.C. where I was honored as one of President Barack Obama’s Champions of Change. It was amazing to meet my fellow board members face to face, and know that they took the time to come and support me. It was also fascinating to be able to put a face to the voices I have been connecting with through conference calls over the last year.
Champions of Change is a weekly initiative the White House hosts to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping the country rise up to meet challenges of the 21st century. I was recognized because of my efforts in relationship abuse awareness and prevention in my community. I have worked with legislation, sustainable education, local agency resources, and the development of support groups. When I was chosen as a Champion of Change, I was overwhelmed. It was humbling to meet the other recipients, some of whom, as I mentioned while I was there, had probably been fighting for the cause longer than I had been alive.
Recently, I attended a Domestic Violence Forum with Senator Frank Lautenberg where representatives from different agencies attended throughout New Jersey. I am proud to say that Senator Lautenberg is one of the 28 co-sponsors of the most important piece of legislation addressing domestic and sexual violence that is before Congress this year, the Leahy/Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (S. 1925). This bill will reauthorize all of the critical programs that address domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in our communities. But, importantly, it will expand programming to work with young people to implement strong prevention programs for middle school, high school and college aged kids. It encourages the use of proven best practices as models for replication in other areas of the country.
Meeting so many new people recently has inspired me to work to spread MASK beyond the four walls of my high school so they too can start having a “by teens for teens” education program against relationship abuse. Who knows – if we can pass the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (S. 1925), maybe one day MASK will be in a school near you!