MSU researchers are using storytelling to prevent youth violence and promote inclusivity

March 22, 2024 - Brandon Drain

The Michigan State School of Social Work’s SPARK Research for Social Change lab (@SPARK4Change) is partnering with Safe Haven Ministries to evaluate Safe Haven’s Grow, Engage, Read, Imagine program (GERI): an initiative that utilizes books, from preschool through high school, promoting education and facilitating spaces so young people can have conversations about social norms, behaviors and boundaries in the Kent Country, MI area. GERI Library

This collaboration is part of an overarching, CDC funded grant called “Cultivating Communities for Change.” The purpose of this grant is to raise awareness, correct misperceptions around norms, and to “get Kent County folks to become aware that child sexual abuse happens in their backyard,” said Joanne Smith-Darden, MSU researcher and co-director of SPARK. 

GERI books cover a broad range of topics such as gender equity, leadership, respecting boundaries, and community. The books, selected by Safe Haven staff, for the GERI program are developmentally tailored and curated for each developmental age and stage -- from preschool through high school. “What we're trying to do is scaffold a healthy trajectory throughout childhood and into early adolescence,” said Smith-Darden. “GERI books were chosen to broaden their scope of knowledge around personal choices and respecting other’s choices.” 

GERI is also equipped with an interactive, take-home component for parents to become involved as well. Each book comes with its own reading guide, coupled with corresponding joint activities for the child and parent. “Not only do these books help spark conversations and spark creativity in children,” said McCauley. “The parent toolkits are really important to help support parents have some of the tougher conversations with their children.” 

Storytelling is, and has been, a powerful vehicle for inspiration, creativity and knowledge dissemination. Reading and storytelling is also a vital tool for children that “helps with their language development, problem-solving skills, and it also helps them learn to interact in a positive social way with others,” McCauley explained.  

“If we can put books in the hands of children that broaden their horizon around topics that can be very sensitive -- whether it be consent, race, diversity, equity, or gender identity -- we're hoping we provide a platform to raise awareness,” said Smith-Darden. 

In addition to the GERI program, SPARK, Safe Haven Ministries and the MSU School of Social Work Ruth T. Koehler Endowment are partnering on an event to further raise awareness. The community conversation driven event will take place in Grand Rapids on April 12, 2024. “What we're hoping is that community folks will come to dialogue about their concerns, passions, or investment related to different aspects of working with children and protecting children’s rights, and safety,” said Smith-Darden. 

The teams are also directing communities to the GERI program by outfitting four buses in The Rapid’s fleet with program material. “We were excited that these bus lines run right through the communities that we work with,” said McCauley. “It's kind of like a living, breathing advertisement.” 

The GERI program is still in its infancy, yet the teams have the utmost confidence that its importance and value to the community will allow it to thrive. “The ability to impact a community -- and create healthy, thriving communities -- is by working first with children,” McCauley. “The Grow, Engage, Read, Imagine program is one example of an initiative that really speaks to that; that really gives children the tools that they need to be successful, and gives parents tools to have important conversations to help children be the best that they can be.” 

The GERI program is also supported by MSU School of Social Work graduate students Morgan Wright, Nicole Ransom, Rachelle Rosario and Kristen Ryder.