When Christan Rainey isn't putting out flames and saving lives as a North Charleston firefighter, he's busy warning teens about the potential dangers of dating and domestic violence. The 33 year-old knows such violence all too well. His mother and four siblings were shot to death 11 years ago, by the man his mother had married.
"It was a long journey for me, religiously, emotionally, just trying to discover who I was," said Rainey. "Because losing all of my family members, I literally lost my identity, what was I supposed to be doing in life and where was I supposed to be going."
He wanted his family to be remembered not for the tragedy, but for any good that could possibly come from it. So he founded the group MAD USA, Men Against Domestic Violence. Rainey says men should play a role in preventing the violence in which they are too often to blame. He fights for legislation and education in a state that frequently ranks in the top ten for the number of men who kill women.
Recently, Rainey got an idea. What if he could teach young women and men how to avoid abusive relationships and prevent domestic violence before it happens, by showing them the warning signs, the smoke that often accompanies the flames? He says the statistics are overwhelming: one in three adolescent girls is physically, verbally or emotionally abused in a relationship nationwide; 1.5 million high school students experience dating violence in a single year; and nearly half report abuse in college.
“I think some of them live it,” said middle school teacher Millibeth Currie. She leads an afterschool group called, “Women in Charge” at Mount Pleasant’s Moultrie Middle school, just outside Charleston. It’s a STEM based organization, empowering girls by emphasizing math and science. But Currie likes to empower them in other ways too. She heard Rainey speak at a TED talk and immediately invited him to her afterschool class.
Rainey shares his family story with a video. It plays as he walks away. Then he begins by explaining what he calls the cycle of violence propelled by power and control. He says it frequently begins with emotional abuse, a boyfriend isolating them from friends or trying to lower their self-esteem, already fragile for many teens.
Rainey asks the group of roughly 50, “When do you think you really know someone you like?" Their answers vary. He tells them it’s when they argue or see that person angry for the first time. He warns the way a boyfriend acts then, may be their first clue. He shows them a picture of several women with battered faces, some as young as the teens themselves. He asks, “Is this love?” He goes on to explain that when kids grow up in families where violence is prevalent, they may come to believe it’s acceptable and even repeat the cycle as they grow older.
“Why is it so hard to tell someone or talk about it,” he asks? A seventh grader answers, “Because it makes it real”. The girls are then asked if they or someone they know has ever been abused by a boyfriend. Several raise their hands.
“I mean when you have kids in middle school raising their hands that they know somebody or that they’ve been physically abused by a dating partner, it solidifies the importance of program like this,” said Rainey.
The once quiet group begins asking questions. Some are personal. Rainey grabs a chair and moves closer. He shares a relationship where a woman hit him. He tells the teens the girlfriend taunted him to strike back. He did not. He says that’s when he knew it was an unhealthy relationship, the kind they should avoid.
“I’m always open with them because I feel like the true key to engaging these kids and gaining their trust in order to educate them, you have to be open an honest with them,” said Rainey.
It’s a lot to think about. “It’s very eye opening. You know I haven’t dated yet so I don’t really know,” said eighth grader Amelia Norcott.
Girls who are just beginning to discover boys are now also discovering and discussing what they do and don’t want in relationships. That's exactly what Rainey wants.
“I don’t want an abusive relationship,” said Norcott. “I want that happily ever after.”