Peer counselors use improv to promote respectful dating

By Kanilla Charles

Did you know that one in three teens in a dating relationship have been verbally, emotionally, sexually, or physically abused? While we often hear about the violence teenagers face today — on the streets, in the home, or in school — we don’t hear enough about the potential for violence in young relationships, which are too often dismissed as not serious.

While studying at Boston Collegiate Charter School, for the past two years I’ve also been working as a peer counselor with the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), running workshops at community centers across the city to help young people identify and maintain healthy relationships.

I came to my role here by way of Urban Improv’s after school program that I’ve been involved with for several years, which uses the same improvisational techniques as theatre to teach students how to become peer leaders in their schools and communities. Our group has focused on serious issues facing students today, from gang violence and self-esteem to drug abuse and interaction with police.

One day, a BPHC program met with us to discuss teen dating violence and our group acted out potential relationship scenarios, freezing half way through to discuss healthy ways to de-escalate and resolve conflicts in a safe manner. The health commission’s visit was part of its Division of Violence Prevention’s program called “Start Strong” a city-wide effort aimed at ending teen dating violence and abuse.

Through Start Strong, the BPHC brings together teens, parents, caregivers, educators, healthcare professionals, domestic violence advocates, and community leaders to build environments that support healthy relationships and ensure violence and abuse are never tolerated.

After their visit to Urban Improv, the health commission’s representatives were impressed by our work and reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in being a peer leader in their program. After an intensive six-week training, I began teaching teenagers ages 13-18, based on Start Strong’s philosophy that educating kids from an early age how to recognize potential violence will help protect them from it. Some of the kids are my age, which can be awkward, but I’ve gotten used to it. Most of the students that attend our after-school programs are students of color and I’m a first-generation immigrant of Trinidadian and Dominican descent. Since I identify with my peers and our community, my students trust me enough to open up about sensitive topics like sexual and domestic abuse and can better engage in my lessons.

Our teaching model, which is similar to Urban Improv’s because it uses role-playing, is one of the most effective ways to reach communities like mine and it needs to be expanded. I have found that too many people, kids and adults, don’t treat each other with respect, not only in dating relationships, but also friendships, family and work relationships. We all need to get along not only to promote peace, but also safeguard our health. Start Strong has called violence and abuse a public health crisis. Studies show that teens experiencing abuse are more likely to smoke or use drugs, take diet pills, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and often consider, even attempt, suicide.

I always thought about becoming a teacher like my mom but now that I actually have experience as one — my first real job — my interest has grown stronger. The communities where I teach and live are underserved and overpoliced. I can see that more clearly now. We face so many problems on a daily basis. I’ve lost family members to gun violence and it’s traumatic. I’ve also learned that women of color are far more likely to be turned away from the ER than anyone else, which is another underestimated public health issue. Our teens experience too much violence and have little to no support in dealing with it; Start Strong has helped me begin to bridge that gap.

I’m interested in what I can do next to improve our situation and encourage others along the way. I want to use my own power to change the ways society sees me and people who look like me. I know I can start with learning to be better in my own relationships and teaching my friends how to be healthier in theirs. When some of the lessons I facilitate as a peer leader don’t land with my students, I try to remember that it may resonate with them later in life. And on days when it’s easy to lose hope, I remind myself and my students that it’s not an option. We need to educate people — one at a time — to build communities that embrace peace and reject violence in any form.

Kanilla Charles recently graduated from Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester and is a peer leader for the Boston Public Health Commission’s Start Strong Program. She will be matriculating at UMass Dartmouth this fall and studying History.