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Prevention Spotlight: Michael Ritter

July 7, 2023

Hello everyone, the prevention team is pleased to present the latest edition of Spotlight, a resource to highlight local programs’ prevention efforts. A bi-monthly edition, Spotlight focuses on a particular initiative from one of our local programs.

Here is our June interview with Michael Ritter:

Mike (pronouns: he/his/him) is the Deputy Director for Domestic Violence Intervention of Lebanon County. He has been with the organization for more than 12 years now, originally starting as a Public Education Coordinator and moving up to the Deputy Director role a couple of years ago.

Domestic Violence Intervention of Lebanon County received pass-through funding from PCADV and used that to contract with qualified partners to offer “listening workshops” to youth and adults in Lebanon County. The program aimed to facilitate workshops on Nonviolent Communication.

The purpose of the initiative was to empower youth to clarify what is important to them, how to express it in a way that is most likely to be heard and understood by others, how to be curious and compassionate when listening to others, and how to navigate disagreements constructively.

PCADV: Tell me about your initiative. How did you end up here?

Mike: Sure, we brought Nonviolent Communication workshop facilitation into Lebanon County. Locally, we were looking at our Pennsylvania Youth survey, or PAYS, data, comparing the pre-pandemic to mid-pandemic data. We were really surprised by the increases that we saw in students reporting things like bullying and other forms of peer conflict. We also got some qualitative data to back that up. A couple of years ago in our County, we started a Youth Advisory Board (YAB) which comprises high school students from at least 5 of the 6 public school districts. They meet regularly, and they were saying some of the same things, especially as schools reopened and students were going back to in-person learning. They were telling us that they were struggling to get along. There was an increase in conflicts, and they just didn’t know how to solve problems and resolve conflicts.

But for me, the more salient piece of information they gave us was that they felt that the adults around them were setting a bad example. So that was a really striking thing to hear. They were witnessing what was happening in the world around them, but also in their local communities as well. There were no good examples. They recognized that there was a problem, but they could not go to adults, which is what we always tell kids: Go to adults you trust. Our kids are telling us that the parents and other adults are not sending good examples for them in terms of resolving conflicts. So, I had been personally sort of thinking about trying to bring in some kind of listening workshops or education into the community already. So, when this happened, I knew we had to do something. So, I got together with the Youth Advisory Board coordinator, and we talked about this. She said, yes, this would be the perfect thing that we need. So, I had a sense of Nonviolent Communication already. I found a contact, and they reached out and turns out they have a couple of folks in Philadelphia. So, through this initiative we were able to contract with them, to have them come out to do a series of workshops to teach the Youth Advisory Board students the Nonviolent Communication process. It’s not just a vague concept. It’s actually an approach that was developed way back starting in the 60s by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. He did a lot of work in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and this is where he started to hone this Nonviolent Communication process. It takes place when we identify, understand, and connect to our universal human needs and values rather than diagnosing and judging. We have a much greater ability to understand one another in a way that empowers us to resolve conflict without violence. So, it’s really about getting folks to tune into their needs and their feelings and then to express that honestly. For example, if I’m a speaker in a situation with you, I want to honestly express my observations, feelings, needs, and requests that regard a situation or conflict that you and I are having. And then the expectation is that you will listen with empathy and then reflect back on what I share about my observations, feelings, needs, and requests. And so that’s what we wanted to try to do because we had students who were craving this type of information, and so we wanted to make that happen and connect those dots.

The pass-through funding primarily helped us to contract with the Philly-based facilitator because there’s a fee for the service, but also, we were asking him to come out in-person from Philadelphia to Lebanon County. So, there was a travel cost associated with that as well. We did find that we needed to spend quite a bit of time modifying the flavor of the curriculum because it’s basically designed to be for more of an adult audience. We needed to make it speak better to a high school audience. So, there was a lot of pre-planning that went into that. We also used another big chunk of the funding to try to incentivize participation. There’s something to the effect of about 40 to 50 kids who normally participate in the YAB. We didn’t expect all of them would participate, nor would that necessarily be best for facilitation purposes. So, we did want to provide an incentive for kids who did participate. When we had in-person sessions, we were able to feed them and then incentivize them further by providing some gift cards.

“We had 28 kids who were interested in this coming out of the introductory session, and that just blew my mind…”

PCADV: What do you think works best for the initiative?

Mike: The thing I felt that worked best, and I actually discovered this pretty early on; it was our early conversation that I had with the facilitator. I realized folks that do Nonviolent Communication do Nonviolent Communication all the time. So, it wasn’t just this thing where they’re going to come in and play it up for a workshop. In our meetings, when we’re planning, and we’re talking about this, and we’re kicking ideas around, they are practicing Nonviolent Communication. To have a facilitator really embody what it is that they’re promoting and teaching speaks volumes about the positive impact that the approach can have. People believe in it so wholeheartedly. So, they practice it, in all facets of life. So, I think when you carry that into the workshop, and you can carry that passion in, and you carry that depth of understanding of how to do this process; that’s really what makes it work best.

PCADV: Did you see any other positive impact of the program?

Mike: Absolutely. Yes, I think Nonviolent Communication gets us in tune with our own internal experiences. So, in my opinion, I think in our society, in our country today, folks tend to be very disconnected from their own feelings and needs. We don’t really have a deep sense of awareness, and we certainly don’t have language around the expression of those feelings and needs. What we really saw, I think, with the kids who do go through this process particularly early on was that the feelings and needs were being placed front and center. This is what non-violent communication focuses on doing. And there are handouts to help people. Handouts that have feelings charts and needs charts because these are universal things that we all have as humans, and it’s really focused. It really puts a laser on those things and helps us to build our own awareness of what our needs and feelings are, and then to be able to express those honestly and with empathy.

I have a few direct quotes from students of things that they’ve taken away from the sessions. So, one student shared that they learned that it’s important to slow down and pause; that it takes time to check in with how I’m feeling. A second student said that I learned that self-empathy is always available to me, and it feels good to identify why I may be upset. Another said, “I learned that putting words to feelings can be really hard. Sometimes I can’t find the right words to fit how I’m feeling.” Then, another one of the students said that they experienced how good it feels to be heard, and I think that’s ultimately what this process aims to do. These students who are participating were starting to take that away.

PCADV: Were there any surprises about the program?

Mike: I think what surprised me and was ultimately the hard part about this was that we did unfortunately start to experience some mass attrition of students participating. We had 28 kids who were interested in this coming out of the introductory session, and that just blew my mind, and I was really excited about that. However, as we progressed, because it’s a multi-session program over many weeks, by the time we got to the second to last session we had 4 students, and then we ultimately had to cancel the last session. Our sessions ran into the spring semester. We ran into the spring sports as well as the high school musicals. I think what probably happened was that the kids who participate in the Youth Advisory Board are also the types of kids who participate in everything else. It just became one of those things where this was kind of crowded out, regardless of the food and gift card incentives. So that was something that surprised me. We weren’t necessarily anticipating the low participation and it made it hard to fully implement the program the way we intended.

PCADV: Apart from the timing issues, what has been the hardest part about implementing the program?

Mike: Well, I think it’s interesting because I’ve been thinking about this. We think if we just incentivize young people to participate in things, they’ll show up, and that’s just not true. It seems to have happened here because it wasn’t enough to give them food and gift cards. There are other things that are maybe more valuable or more important in their lives that they want to participate in. So, I think for me the thing I take away from that is to consider other things that we need to do, especially with young folks, to compete with the many other demands and interests that they have in their lives. That is something that we’re going to have to think about and figure out.

“We need to figure out now what else we can do to help these kids really step into leadership roles in their schools and in their communities.”

PCADV: How do you plan to work around the barriers to address them in the future?

Mike: So we have been working with PCADV to work on this a little bit with what we have left in the tank. We want to think through additional strategies on how we can support youth leadership development with these students, whether it be the ones who specifically tried the Nonviolent Communication program or just the Youth Advisory Board students more broadly. We are also thinking of what else we can do to supplement the work that the YAB is doing toward youth leadership and development. So, we’re in talks and we are still considering our options, and what we could do to support them in that way. Maybe we were a bit too specific or narrow with just Nonviolent Communication and maybe it just ran its course. We need to figure out now what else we can do to help these kids really step into leadership roles in their schools and in their communities.

PCADV: What should other programs keep in mind if they want to implement the same initiative?

Mike: So, some of the things I’ve already sort of talked about; consider that food and gift cards may not always be the most effective way to attract young audiences to come to do a program. I don’t necessarily have the grand answer, but other strategies would be something to maybe think about. I do also think that maybe it is better to consider the time of year, to do these things. However, I have been doing this work for a long time and I think there is no good time of year for community outreach work, in my opinion. So, I think in that case it might be a matter of really considering the length of the program. Not necessarily the time of year that we try to do it, but how many sessions is it going to take? How long are those sessions? How much time is left in between those sessions? Maybe if it was a shorter time frame, we could have kept more kids in the process. I also think that if folks are interested in Nonviolent Communication specifically, they should also consider that it is written for an adult audience and that they should really consider what it needs to look like for a teen audience, or a more nuanced audience than just kind of a general audience. So, you know, we were very fortunate that our facilitator was very open and willing to work with us on that. I imagine other Nonviolent Communication facilitators would be as well. It is also important to be prepared to have those conversations and to come to the table with ideas on what that might need to look like for your specific group.

Please feel free to reach out to Mike if you want to implement the same initiative or talk through it. Here is his contact information for the same: Michael Ritter:

We thank Mike for his participation!

If you are interested in highlighting your programs’ initiative in one of Spotlight’s editions, please send an email to Aishwarya Sinha, Prevention Specialist, at