by Meredith Jacobs
In 2005, I went to my first Women to Watch luncheon. A friend was being honored and I attended to support her. I didn’t know anything about JWI, but that year, at the luncheon, there were displays in the lobby of the organization’s various program. One table, showcasing JWI's “Strong Girls” and “Good Guys” teen programs caught my eye. “OMG!” I thought, “I need to talk to my children about healthy relationships!” I didn’t know much at the time, so I got involved with JWI and learned. Honestly, I probably was thinking more of my daughter: How could I teach her to know what it meant to be in a healthy relationship? To give her the understanding and self-worth that she would expect, and accept nothing less than, to be treated with love and respect?
And I am forever grateful to JWI for giving me the tools to raise my now 20-year-old daughter into a “Strong Girl.” But, I am even more grateful for what it has given my son.
Three years ago, soon after I joined the JWI staff, we were invited to the White House to preview a new initiative to end sexual assault on college campuses. We were one of eight organizations invited, and certainly the only one with “Jewish” in its name. Soon after, It’s On Us debuted.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Vice President Joe Biden speak about the founding of It’s On Us. There is something about being in the room when he speaks... He makes everyone in the room feel like he’s speaking directly to them. There’s a way he moves you through laughter and tears. And, even though he rarely mentions it, his own personal history of tragedy and loss seems to infuse his work. He sets the example of resilience — of waking up each morning with grace and humor and working to right the wrongs of the world. Mr. Biden had written the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Years later, he was reviewing numbers with his staff, checking if the law was helping to lower the incidences of violence. And, sure enough, it did, in every age group — except for 14 to 22. Think about it. What’s going on in your life during those years? High school and college. So, the vice president asked his staff to pull together a group of college-aged women and ask them what they needed. He expected them to say, "We need more security on campus, more blue lights…" Instead they said, “Get the guys involved.” “Get the guys involved,” Biden repeated to us. And so, It’s On Us was born.
They reached out to campus leaders — presidents of student governments, campus activists. With A-list celebrities signing up to do public service announcements, they caught the attention of non-typical allies. Suddenly, it became cool to talk about consent, and slowly, it’s become incredibly uncool to take advantage of a woman. As Mr. Biden said, “Any frat guy, who doesn’t stop his brother from taking a drunk girl upstairs is a G-d damn coward.”
Over the past three years, I would come home, excited and inspired by my meetings with the staff of It’s On Us, and share stories with my family. One day, when my son was in 10th grade, he asked if I would help him create an advocacy day between his youth group, BBYO, and ZBT, the national fraternity that JWI partners with for our Safe Smart Dating program. Along with a colleague who oversees JWI's advocacy efforts, I proudly accompanied him and the boys from BBYO and ZBT to the Senate and White House, where they discussed the need for additional healthy relationship education — not only in college, but in high schools. Last year, my son applied to the It’s On Us student advisory committee and they asked him to head up a new effort to bring the campaign to high schools. This past fall, he held the first It’s On Us high school “Signing Day” — where high school athletes signed the It’s On Us pledge. This spring, the program will roll out to high schools around the country.
Twelve years after I learned about JWI’s “Good Guys” and three years after I learned about It’s On Us, I rode the D.C. Metro to the White House to attend meetings with my son. He had been invited weeks before me (I was a last-minute inclusion). He sat in the front row with the other members of the student committee. I sat in the back, catching up with friends. He stood up to speak, loudly proclaiming his pledge to make a difference. I sat in the back quietly, listening to my son.
Next year he will attend college in Washington, D.C., choosing the city not because it is close to home, but because he wants to continue to be involved and dreams of making a real difference.
So, I’m sitting here, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, writing all of this not to brag (although I am incredibly proud), but because I want it to be a testament to the power of a mother’s words. Many of the young people involved in the struggle to change the culture on college campuses are survivors of sexual assault, or friends or family of survivors. Unfortunately, there are many survivors — far too many. My son is not, nor did he get involved because of one. He got involved because he learned about the issue and believed he could change things for the better.
I am tired of hearing men say this is an important issue because they have daughters or mothers or sisters or wives. You don’t have to have a sister to call out your friend who is bragging about nailing a drunk freshman. You don’t have to know a survivor to respect the wishes of your partner and make certain you have consent. You just need to be a good guy. This is what the vice president talks about. Although there are so many women in his life that he could credit for his work, he often talks about his father. His father taught him that a man uses his power to help. When he speaks to students, Joe Biden tells them of the “rule of thumb” — that in our country, years ago, a man was legally allowed to beat his wife as long as he hit her with something no wider than his thumb. Truly, misogyny and violence are as deeply rooted in our history as racism. We have far to go.
I am very blessed to have had the access to the information and inspiration of both JWI and It’s On Us. Not everyone gets to be in meetings at the White House or have cell phone numbers of key staff or be in the room when the vice president explains just why these efforts are critical. I know how lucky I am. But here’s what I know: It all started because I learned and I talked to my kids. That’s what I want you to know. Talk to your kids. You tell them to eat their vegetables and drink their milk. You tell them to be careful what they post online and you tell them not to drink or do drugs. Now, tell them if they are comfortable enough to have sex with someone, they must be comfortable enough to ask for consent. That they must respect the way they talk about women and what they allow to be said — no matter where they are or who they are with — language is the first step in changing the culture. Talk to them about what a healthy relationship looks like to you and what you hope for them, not only in who they ultimately chose to spend their lives with, but all those who share their time until they meet that final person. Encourage them to be leaders — even when it’s scary to do so. And model love and respect.
Look to Joe Biden as your example — for the countless young people he has inspired. For his decades of work to end violence against women and girls and the future generations of activists who will surely follow him. As he told the young people last Thursday at the final White House It’s On Us summit, “your generation is the most open, the most accepting, the most inclusive. We are counting on you. Stay engaged.”