White linen suits with red Converse sneakers and black tuxedo tops paired with leopard-print pants might not be considered traditional prom attire by some, but at the Center for Anti-Violence Education in Brooklyn, NY, they were just some of the many stylish ensembles seen at their spring dance.
The Prom You Always Wanted, offered by CAE April 27, provided its community with the opportunity to experience the traditional high school dance in a new — and more positive — way.
"One of our board members came up with the idea, and it was really that so many people, especially in the LGBT community, felt like their prom wasn't what they wanted it be," executive director Tracy Hobson told Playbill.com. "They couldn't bring who they wanted to go with, or the pre-described notions of what you're supposed to wear or not wear, and they didn't really fit in the way they wanted to. So this idea was: This is the prom you want it to be. Bring who you want to bring. Be with you want to be with. And have a really good time."
The Prom You Always Wanted is just one of the events and programs offered by the Center for Anti-Violence Education, which develops and implements violence prevention programs for both individuals and organizations. CAE's programs focus on women, girls and LGBTQ communities, with a special sensitivity to the needs of survivors. Participants develop skills and strength to heal from, prevent and counter violence in an effort to improve the world. Founded in the 1970s, the CAE began when two women met at an anti-war rally and decided to form a karate school with two intentions: physically empower women to feel stronger in their bodies, which would then lead them to feel more confident using their voices to stand up for themselves and others, and using that work to end violence.
"The two twin pillars are really building personal strength and then using that work to try to end violence in the world," Hobson said. "The physical is what helps be the catalyst for people to stand up for themselves and do the things they often can't do — go back to school, apply for that job or do activism in the world. That's ingrained in everything that we do and the philosophy of everything that we do."
"I think one of the things that makes us really unique is that we use physical strategies to empower people," Hobson added. "Because when you're talking about survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, there's often a disassociation from one's body. To be able to be physical again, to learn how to block your head, to kick or break a board — it's so transformative, and it's just a huge rush of, 'Oh my God, I can do this.' That physical piece is so important, that connecting with one's body.
"But self defense is so much more than physical," she continued. "Learning to know that you deserve to be protected, and you deserve to get help, and after violence happens, to heal, to be around other people and community. For us, self-defense is a huge rainbow of skills and strategies, and physical is just one piece of that. An important piece, but just one."
The CAE works with communities at risk of violence, focusing on women, many of whom are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, as well as youth and LGBTQ communities. "With LGBT communities, we definitely do work with adults, but one of our main focuses is with LGBT homeless youth, because they're at such high risk for violence," Hobson said. "And then within youth, we're doing a lot of focus on pre-teen girls and teen women. We really feel it's important to get to them in that early age to try to talk about prevention of relationship violence that's been happening so much with teenagers."
The work with teens, titled the Teen Initiative, also includes an on-site after-school program as well as work within the schools that focuses on preventing and coping with bullying, as a bystander as well as a victim. The work also focuses on relationship violence prevention and identifying healthy and unhealthy behaviors in relationships.
Along with working directly with teens, the CAE is also working with the people in teens' lives, such as guidance counselors, teachers and parents. "Studies show if you're trying to influence culture and trying to influence young women, you want to be reaching all the people around her who influence her," Hobson said. "That's part of what we're doing to keep this change in philosophy going, even when we're not around. It's like working with parents on how you can talk to your kid about violence in a way that's not totally terrifying to them. Usually they don't want to tell their parents if they're being bullied. With parents, staff and guidance counselors, it's sort of that 360 all-around holistic approach."
The CAE focuses on leadership development, which Hobson described as one of the most moving parts of the work the CAE offers.
"It's an incredible process and something we take really seriously," she said, describing one of the LGBTQ homeless youth who is now being trained to be an instructor with the CAE. "We're hoping to expand that part of the program in the next couple of years, if we get the funding. Teaching youth to teach other youth — we do that with our teen women. It's so successful, particularly when we're taking teen women into the place of other pre-teen girls. They listen to each other more than if they're listening to an adult. And for the teen women to feel like, 'Hey, my experience is really helping this young girl' — we find that it's so helpful for everybody involved."
One June 1 the CAE held its 9th annual Punch-a-Thon in Prospect Park. Described as CAE's version of a walkathon, the event included a small self-defense workshop taught by the Center's teens and members of its survivor action network. The group did a total of 1,000 punches together, with each set of 100 dedicated to ending a different type of violence.
With the CAE's 40th birthday approaching in September, Hobson reflected on the organization's accomplishments, which include collaborating with more communities as time has passed. The CAE was the first organization to provide self-defense programs to the trans community and the first to provide self-defense for people with AIDS.
"We worked with the anti-violence project to do that back in the 80s, which was a time when the AIDS epidemic was happening and a lot of misinformation was happening, and people were really being discriminated against," Hobson said. "We just really saw a need for this population to have different skills to protect themselves, so the anti-violence project and CAE partnered together to do that. "We were only women back in the 70s, and then we would go to other organizations and work with other groups, but primarily just women," she continued. "Then we opened up to transgender people early on, and first it was just trans women and then trans men, and now all trans people. But we were ahead of the curve in struggling to figure out how to do that at a time when not many people were. Now it's kind of common."
Reflecting on change since CAE first began, Hobson commented on the changes in the Center's neighborhood and how the Center has adapted with those changes.
"We have been in this neighborhood in Park Slope for almost 40 years now, and this neighborhood has changed drastically in that time," she said. "And so part of what we've done is change how we provide our programming. We're going out into the community more. We're partnered now with more than 70 organizations a year, so we've got crisis centers, churches, community centers, you name it, we're there. All five boroughs."
The CAE has received funding from the Department of Health as well as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which helped the Center launch its Community Alliance Against Violence program. In the program, the CAE works with LGBTQ youth in shelters — both the youth and the staff — focusing on interpersonal violence, self-protection from bias crimes, hate crimes and street harassment and partner violence.
"We've been working with the youth and also with the staff on a whole host of things like de-escalation strategies and secondary trauma and self-defense and what to do after a conflict happens," Hobson said. "We have an independent evaluator who's been evaluating it… It's been highly successful, and we're really hoping we can continue it.
"I feel like we're at a crossroads and really looking to take things to the next level," Hobson said. "The LGBT program for homeless youth is so successful that I would love to just double it by next year. Going into the school and seeing how we're working with guidance counselors — the more we come, the more we see that there's such a need. There's girls that are cutting themselves, there's sexual harassment in the hallways, boys are asking girls to flash them and girls are doing it — so many areas where there's need. I just want to double what we're doing. I really want to increase it." When commenting on Pride, Hobson said, "At CAE, we really believe everybody has the right to live free from violence... We celebrate who each of us is individually and who we are together as a community, and that our voices are important. And when we come together, we are really strong and really powerful. And so this Pride, we hope that everyone can be who they are and love who they are and help create change in this world for all of us."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)