Click each question to learn more information about what it means to be an active bystander.
What is a bystander?
Someone who observes a conflict, unacceptable behaviour, or unsafe situation. The conflict, situation, or behaviour being observed might be something serious or minor, one-time or repeated. The bystander may not know what to do and may expect others to do something to help.
What is an active bystander?
Someone who observes a conflict, unacceptable behaviour, or unsafe situation and takes steps that can make a difference. An active bystander does not ignore the situation, look away, or call it something else.
Why is it important to be an active bystander?
(adapted from Green Dot campaign, University of Kentucky)
All of us have witnessed conflicts or unacceptable behaviours. Some of us respond. But few of us are able to respond effectively and are able to walk away from the situation satisfied of our actions. Most of us often feel at a loss of how to respond. We are afraid of retaliation or embarrassment. Or we might fear a loss of relationships with the person in question or with others who may disapprove of our responses. We feel a lack of competence or uncertainty about what action would be best. Or we believe that some else will take action – someone with more authority or expertise.
It is important to realize that everyone has a part to play in making social changes and establishing what is acceptable in our communities. We are all connected to issues of discrimination and inequality; be it gender-based, race-based, class-based, age-based or other forms of systemic oppression. Perhaps the connection is a direct experience you have had with harassment or discrimination, or perhaps it is that you know or love someone who has been impacted. Maybe your connection is a broader concern for community safety or a commitment to social justice issues. Maybe your connection is just rooted in your desire to contribute something positive in the world.
We must act despite the apathy and indifference fuelled by thoughts like “It’s not my issue” or “It can’t happen to me”. We must gather the courage to look past our personal fears that often inhibit effective bystander intervention. By becoming an active bystander, you are becoming more conscious and deliberate about your involvement. You are taking charge of your role.
What are ways to assess a bystander situation?
(adapted and expanded from Darley & Latane’s Bystander Intervention Model)
1. Witness an occurrence out of the ordinary.
2. Decide “in your gut” if what you just witnessed was unacceptable or if something was amiss.
3. Ask yourself: "Could I play a role here?"
If no one intervenes, what will likely happen?
Is someone else better placed to respond?
What would be my purpose in responding?
1. Assess your options for giving help (see "strategies for intervening as a bystander" below).
2. Determine the potential risks of taking action.
Is there a low-risk option?
Are there risks to myself?
Are there risks to others (e.g. potential retaliation against person being "helped")?
How could I reduce risks?
Is there more information I can get to better assess the situation?
1. Decide whether to act, at the time or later.
2. Get help when:
Potential for physical harm exists.
Professional medical help is called for.
You don't feel safe taking action yourself.
What are some strategies for intervening as a bystander?
(adapted and expanded from MIT bystander intervention program)
During the Situation
USE "I" STATEMENTS
There are 3 parts to formulating an “I” statement:
1. State your feelings
2. Name the behaviour
3. State how you want the person to respond. This focuses on your feelings rather than criticizing the other person.
Example: “I feel [blank] when you [blank]. Please don’t do that any more.”
THE SILENT STARE
Remember, you don’t have to speak to communicate. Sometimes a disapproving look can be far more powerful than words.
Using humour reduces the tension of an intervention and makes it easier for the person to hear you. Do not undermine what you say with too much humour. Funny does not mean unimportant.
Example: “You’d better put some body armour on after that remark!”
There is safety and power in numbers. This strategy is best used with someone who has a clear pattern of inappropriate behaviour where many examples can be presented as evidence of his/her/their problem.
Example: “We are worried about you. Are you ok? We noticed that you have been making some off-colour remarks recently…”
BRING IT HOME
This strategy prevents someone from distancing himself/herself from the impact of their actions. It also prevents someone from dehumanizing their targets.
Example: “I hope no one ever talks about you like that.”
Example: “What if someone said what you just said about your loved one?”
WE'RE FRIENDS, RIGHT...?
This reframes the intervention as caring and non-critical. It lets the person know that you care about them and their actions.
Example: “Billy, as your friend I’ve got to tell you that getting someone drunk to have sex with them isn’t cool. It could get you in a lot of trouble. Don’t do it.”
This snaps someone out of their “comfort zone" or allows a potential target to move away and/or to have other friends intervene.
Example: Ask a man harassing a woman on the street for directions or the time.
Example: Spill your drink on the person or interrupt and start a conversation with the person.
After the Situation
PRIVATELY SUPPORT THE UPSET PERSON
Help someone who has been hurt or offended. Listen supportively. Provide information about resources available to the aggrieved person.
Example: “Are you okay? I witnessed what happened and wanted to offer my support.”
TALK PRIVATELY WITH THE INAPPROPRIATE ACTOR
The use of this strategy would be best for people of equal status and power as you. It also depends on your relationship and the level of trust you share. An important part of getting your message heard is to allow the recipient an opportunity to save face and explain themselves.
Example: “I know you well enough to know that you probably didn’t intend any offence with your comment just now. But just the same I don’t feel comfortable with that kind of humour in this setting—I think someone may have been offended.”
REPORT THE INCIDENT
Share details about the situation, with or without names. Get help from someone better placed to intervene. Make people responsible for this class, department, residence, office, etc. aware of what is going on.
Example: “I have a concern about an act that I recently witnessed. I would like to report the incident.”
This is pivotal. Continue to read up on issues regarding types of discrimination. The more educated you are, the more you can let others know and share your knowledge.
Below are a number of university and community education initiatives that also focus on the topics of active witnessing, bystander awareness and anti-discrimination response.
MIT: Bystander Intervention
MIT Bystander Intervention operates on the philosophy of the “active bystander” – a person who not only observes a conflict or unacceptable behaviour but also takes steps to make a change. The MIT active bystander model functions in 2 steps. First, the bystander assesses a situation to find out what kind of help is appropriate. Then, the bystander evaluates options and chooses a strategy to respond. There are interactive online scenarios where you can put what you have learned into practice.
To find out more about how to assess situations: http://web.mit.edu/bystanders/assessing/index.html
To find out more about active bystander strategies: http://web.mit.edu/bystanders/strategies/index.html
To practice some online scenarios: http://web.mit.edu/bystanders/interactive/index.html
Anti-Racism Training Response – A.R.T training
The A.R.T. Program uses a witness-centered approach to prejudice reduction. The method is based on Ishiyama’s (2000) “active witnessing model” which proposes the following four levels of witnessing: (1) dis-witnessing, (2) passive witnessing, (3) active witnessing, and (4) ethical witnessing with social action.
Dr. Ishu Ishiyama is an associate professor of Educational and Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He developed Anti-racism Response Training (ART) which directly addresses issues of active witnessing and bystander intervention. How can we respond to racist remarks and discriminative situations with concrete action? What skills do we need to have for intervening racist situations?
Download Dr. Ishu Ishiyama’s Active Witnessing Triangle and Anti-Discrimination Responses.
Mentors in Violence Program (MVP)
The MVP program was co-founded by Jackson Katz, an American anti-sexist male activist, educator, author, filmmaker and social theorist. The MVP program operates from a “bystander” approach – it focuses on young men not as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, but as empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers – and support abused ones. It focuses on young women not as victims or potential targets of harassment, rape and abuse, but as empowered bystanders who can support abused peers – and confront abusive ones. In this model, a “bystander” is defined as a family member, friend, classmate, teammate, coworker– anyone who is imbedded in a family, school, social, or professional relationship with someone who might in some way be abusive, or experiencing abuse.
To find out more about the MVP program: http://www.jacksonkatz.com/aboutmvp.html
To read 10 tips on what men can do to prevent gender violence: http://www.jacksonkatz.com/wmcd.html
Green Dot campaign
Our prevention strategy is called “Green Dot” and is built on the premise that engaging the bystander can finally alter the outcome of the tragedy of power-based personal violence. The Green Dot strategy is a comprehensive approach to violence prevention that capitalizes on the power of peer and cultural influence across all levels of the socio-ecological model. Informed by social change theory, the model targets all community members as potential bystanders, and seeks to engage them, through awareness, education and skills-practice, in proactive behaviors that establish intolerance of violence as the norm, as well as reactive interventions in high-risk situations – resulting in the ultimate reduction of violence. Specifically, the program proposes to target socially influential individuals from across community subgroups. Green dots combat the red dots that signify violence on a map.
Power-based personal violence is a form of violence that has as a primary motivator the assertion of power, control and/or intimidation in order to harm another. It includes sexual violence, partner violence and stalking violence. There are learning tools such as video clips and philosophies that help flesh out the Green Dot approach.
To find out more about the Green Dot campaign: http://www.uky.edu/StudentAffairs/VIPCenter/learn_greendot.php
William and Mary : Building a Healthy Community – Sexual Assault Resources and Education
The Sexual Assault Resources and Education website from William and Mary offers comprehensive information on sexual assault; stages of sexual assault, intimate partner sexual assault and sexual coercion. There are sections that help victims of sexual assault as well as friends and partners of victims of sexual assault on ways to support. Education tools include topics of relationship health, communicating in a sexually ambiguous situation, alcohol and bystander intervention. There are interactive quizzes that help you work through myths about sexual assault and bystander intervention techniques.
To find out more about definitions, types and stages of sexual assault: http://www.wm.edu/offices/deanofstudents/services/ohp/healthtopics/sexualassault/sexualmisconduct/stages/index.php
To learn more about the definition of sexual coercion: http://www.wm.edu/offices/deanofstudents/services/ohp/healthtopics/sexualassault/sexualmisconduct/coercion/index.php
To find out more about recognizing and confronting intimate partner assault: http://www.wm.edu/offices/deanofstudents/services/ohp/healthtopics/sexualassault/sexualmisconduct/intimate-partner/index.php
STEP UP! Program
STEP UP! is a prosocial behavior and bystander intervention program that educates students to be proactive in helping others from topics that range from relationship abuse, sexual assault and discrimination to gambling, hazing to academics and depression. It was developed by the University of Arizona C.A.T.S. Life Skills Program and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The approach is to address the 5 core questions as a way to assess the situation and then, use a 5 point formula for an effective bystander response. There is a downloadable student guide, videos and scenarios that help buffer this learning process.
To find out more about the 5 core questions in assessing the situation: http://www.stepupprogram.org/students/strategies/#core
To find out more about the 5 point formula for an effective bystander response: http://www.stepupprogram.org/students/strategies/#formula
Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibilities.
This Darley and Latane study is a seminal psychological experiment that explored the concept of “diffusion of responsibility” – how bystanders’ responses are affected, in the presence of others. The experiment posits that bystander inaction is not caused by apathy, indifference or personality variables. Instead, it is an individual response to observing other bystanders in the situation.
The Darley and Latane study forms the basis of the theory of bystander intervention, calling to attention the importance of being an active bystander. It acknowledges the importance of an individual’s action in creating social change and establishing what is acceptable in communities by role-modeling their own choices and actions.
Darley, J. and Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibilities. Journal of personality and social psychology, 8, 4, 377-383.