For Katie Edwards, understanding why interpersonal violence happens is important, but just as important is uncovering the ways to prevent it, and implementing those interventions.
Edwards, associate professor in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, has spent her career examining the underlying factors of interpersonal violence, especially among youth. She has earned awards and recognition — most recently the American Society of Criminology’s Community Engaged Scholar award — for the work she’s done to bring evidence-based preventative measures into schools and communities.
More recently, her research has turned toward marginalized populations, specifically LGBTQ+ and Native American youths.
Edwards sat down with Nebraska Today to talk about how communities and schools can change the trajectory of interpersonal violence, what roles each of us can play in preventing violence, and how policies directly affect violence prevention.
What is the main focus of your research, and how did you choose that area of study?
In my research lab, we seek to answer two fundamental questions. First, how do we prevent sexual and related forms of violence? And second, how do we support survivors in the aftermath of violent victimization?
I was always interested in better understanding trauma, particularly as it impacted children, adolescents and emerging adults. I started as an undergraduate thinking I wanted to go into clinical practice, and started doing research. I was working in a research lab as an undergrad and became really interested in the research piece of prevention and intervention. It was very exciting to me that we could use research to improve the lives of others.
We know that sexual related forms of violence are public health epidemics, and impact a majority of individuals in one way or another, either directly or through someone that you know. Knowing that, I really wanted to embark on a career in research that had applicability to practice, specifically understanding how can we prevent sexual and related forms of violence. And also, how can we as individuals and communities support survivors in the aftermath of victimization to support their recovery and healing.
Part of your focus is also putting your research into practice in schools and communities, correct? What does that look like?
All the work that I do is really led by communities and school partners. Rather than coming in and saying, ‘here’s what we’re going to do,’ it’s really about working with schools and communities to identify the issues they want to address, and how to best address them in a way that will be meaningful, impactful and sustainable for that specific community.
The good news is that prevention works. In some of our research, we have identified several key strategies that have led to reductions in interpersonal violence, particularly among adolescents. In addition to that, we’ve conducted research to examine what helps support survivors in reducing things like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the most exciting thing about our work is that we’re seeing that we’re moving the needle on a number of these outcomes.
Can you give an example of maybe some of those interventions and strategies that you found?
We know that prevention needs to be comprehensive, so it needs to focus on a number of different risk and protective factors. What we try to do in our prevention work is to target different levels of what we call the social ecological model — individual factors, relationship factors, school factors, and community factors. One of the things that we try to do is engage all community members into playing a role. Rather than focusing solely on victims or perpetrators, we try to empower everyone in the community to play a role in preventing violence.
This could be something as simple as speaking up when you hear a sexist comment, or supporting someone who you know has experienced sexual assault victimization. In addition to bystander strategies, we work a lot with youth in particular, on developing social emotional skills so skills to manage things like strong emotions and relational conflict. These life skills not only may help to reduce interpresonal violence but other things like mental health issues as well.
Additionally, the policy piece is huge. We’re working with schools and communities to create more inclusive policies and policies that help to detour and prevent violence from happening.
What if any role can schools play in the prevention of interpersonal abuse and sexual assault?
Schools and communities play a critical role in both preventing violence and supporting survivors. We know that comprehensive prevention is key, and most youth spend the majority of their time in school. Creating evidence-based programs, implementing those programs, making sure they’re working and sustaining them is absolutely critical.
What can the average person do to be part of the solution to violence?
Everyone has a role to play. Oftentimes, people think, ‘well, I can’t do anything about this,’ or ‘what’s my role?’ We know from research that everyone has a role to play. It can be something as simple as standing up to a sexist comment. It can be saying to a survivor, ‘I’m here for you, how can I help you?’ We know that social media can be an impactful platform for social change. And so again, even things like a simple tweet, or a Facebook post about how violence is unacceptable, and that we should all believe survivors, can be really important in changing social norms to be intolerant of violence.
Your work also has a focus on sexual and gender minorities. Some states are passing anti-trans laws, including limiting care to trans children. How are these laws and policies affecting these children?
We know that any laws or policies that discriminate against sexual minority youth and/or gender minority youth have detrimental consequences, not only on the immediate safety of these youth, but they lead to chronic stress. When people experience chronic stress, we see things like depression, other mental health issues, even physical health problems. In my area of work, we see chronic stress relating to increased likelihood of experiencing violence. This is another example where everyone can play a role in creating communities that are safe and inclusive for all youth.
As far as moving the needle on interpersonal violence, how are we doing as a society?
Overall rates of sexual assault, for example, have remained relatively stable over the last few decades when we look at it from a national level (even though some other forms of violent crimes have actually decreased). However, in research studies have shown decreases in rates of sexual and related forms of violence in communities where evidence-based prevention has been implemented.. The good news is we know that prevention is possible. The challenge is how do we scale that up? And how do we get that to all communities in a way that’s going to be meaningful for those communities and most important, sustained.
Do you feel like young people who are learning from you in the classroom, the lab and in your community work, can and are they making a difference in communities?
Absolutely. One of the things that we focus on is working with youth, not only helping them to acquire skills for a healthy life, but also work with them on how to teach their peers what they’ve learned. We focus on how to create this broader community-wide change, rather than just focusing on individuals. In a lot of our work, we have youth advisory boards, and those youth are leaders in the work that we’re doing. For example, in an NIH funded grant, we have an LGBTQ+ advisory board with youth across the United States, ages 15 to 18. And every time I meet with them, I am reminded that I can retire one day because these youth are going to change the world.