Husker program empowers Rapid City youth to stop sexual violence

· 6 min read

Husker program empowers Rapid City youth to stop sexual violence

Students on a VIP, culture heals float from a parade.
Students involved with the Youth VIP program created a prize-winning float for the October 2018 Native American Day parade in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Lakota cultural values are among the prevention techniques incorporated into a six-year-old program that is empowering youth in Rapid City, South Dakota, to stop sexual violence among their peers.

The Youth Voices in Prevention — Youth VIP — program, developed under the leadership of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln educational psychologist affiliated with the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, serves both Native and non-Indigenous middle and high school students in the Rapid City School District. American Indian persons, particularly the Lakota people, comprise about 20% of Rapid City’s population.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided nearly $2 million in financial support to the program. The CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control is highlighted the program June 8-10 as a success story on its Veto Violence webpage and related social media accounts (; Twitter: @CDCInjury).

Native American youth experience high rates of sexual abuse — a problem rooted in historical trauma, colonization, cultural genocide, forced placement in boarding schools and other atrocities. Katie Edwards, principal investigator for the Youth VIP project, said the project stresses the Lakota values of bravery and respect, while raising awareness that sexual violence was rare in Lakota society before colonization and sexual violence is the antithesis of Lakota culture and values.

A Native youth involved with the Youth VIP program created this photo essay

Youth VIP is a partnership between the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools and several Rapid City-area entities, including: South Dakota Rape Prevention Education agencies, South Dakota Network Against Family Violence & Sexual Assault, Teen UP, Working Against Violence Inc., Youth and Families Services, and Ateyapi youth mentoring.

Many researchers, practitioners and youth have contributed to the effort. Edwards is a nationally recognized expert on interpersonal violence and serves as director of the Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools’ Interpersonal Violence Research Laboratory. Mona Herrington, who is of Oglala Lakota descent, served as cultural outreach manager in the Interpersonal Violence Research Lab.

When Youth VIP launched in 2017, Edwards spent six months living in Rapid City and traveled between Rapid City and the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she was working on a different project.

Here is a Q&A about the Youth VIP program with Edwards and Herrington:

What was your role in developing this project?

Edwards: As principal investigator for the CDC grant, I guided the evaluation methodology, was a lead program developer and I was deeply involved in the community engagement components.

Herrington: I live in Rapid City, South Dakota. As cultural outreach manager, my job began when recruitment started for youth. I worked as a community liaison with Youth VIP while I recruited youth for the program. I worked directly with students and the community. It was very interesting and rewarding work because I was able to engage with parents and youth.

Dr. Edwards, you went to live in Rapid City as the program launched. Why?

Edwards: Being immersed in the community and building strong and trusting relationships were critical to the project’s success. I also learned a lot about Lakota culture, history and language, something that has had profound and meaningful impacts on me personally and professionally. Over the past six years, when not living in South Dakota, I spent a week or two there every two months, except when COVID-19 restricted travel. Youth VIP is one of several federally funded projects in Rapid City, the state of South Dakota and on Indian reservations, all focused on violence prevention and response.

Ms. Herrington, why is your cultural background important to this project?

Herrington: My cultural background helps me to understand the Lakota families I am working with. Being Lakota helps with the trust issues that my relatives (Lakota people) have with the White community. The historical and intergenerational trauma and colonization make working with the Lakota community hard to understand. So, it helps to have staff who live and work in those situations. It is especially good when a family follows the traditions of the Lakota and the staff know those traditions.

What are some examples of the Lakota values, traditions and language that were incorporated into activities?

Edwards: With guidance from Mona and other Native staff and leaders, we incorporated Lakota prayer, smudging and song into activities, which included summer camps and after-school activities. We discussed the ways that Lakota virtues such as bravery (woohitike) and respect (wawoohola) were related to sexual violence prevention and that sexual violence is the antithesis of the Lakota way of life. In fact, it was rare in Lakota society prior to colonization.

Herrington: Our youth created a Lakota cultural group so they could share with others different aspects of culture, such as Powwow regalia, kinship roles and the responsibilities of the Lakota family. One youth taught teachings about growing long hair for males and females and how important it is.

Why is it important to include those Lakota viewpoints?

Edwards: A growing body of literature documents the importance of culturally grounded prevention and intervention. Culturally grounded programs have more impact than those that are not. Helping Native youth learn about their cultures may instill a sense of pride and identity that can promote health and wellness in many areas. It benefits non-Indigenous youth by giving them the opportunity to learn about Lakota culture and history, and they may learn to be more respectful of their Native peers and less likely to engage in racial-based bullying.

Herrington: Our Lakota values and virtues are part of our everyday lives, so it is important to incorporate them into a multicultural program. These are values everyone and anyone can use in their lives.

What are the most promising results?

Edwards: Via youth leadership and adult-youth partnerships we can prevent violence and create safer and healthier communities. The project led to positive change. Nearly 2,650 students completed surveys before and after they participated in Youth VIP activities. There were 132 events between May 2018 and April 2020. Students who attended our camps engaged in more helpful bystander intervention and reported less denial of the problem of sexual violence. They reported lower rates of perpetrating some forms of violence and were more likely to disclose if they had been victimized.

Herrington: The most important thing to come out of this program is to teach and disseminate sexual violence prevention to the youth. Both (potential victims and potential perpetrators) need to understand the importance of consent and what consent is. Bystander intervention training also is important so youth know how to prevent sexual violence from happening.

What are the next steps?

Edwards: Several other projects have been launched based upon the success of the Youth VIP project. We are seeking additional grant funding to sustain the program in Rapid City and expand it to other communities that are highly interested in implementing a similar model. This project transformed the way I think about and do research.

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