It’s a clear spring day in East Oakland. UC Berkeley junior Ana Mancia and sophomore Cynthia Garcia Villalta have finished giving a 20-minute presentation on intimate partner violence to a classroom of sophomores at Oakland Unity High School. One student, who had been crying quietly during their talk, approaches Mancia after the bell. The student tells her that they had personal experience with some of the material in the presentation and they wanted to know to how Mancia was able to heal from her trauma.
Mancia, too, knew domestic violence from the inside, and at the age of 16 she became a certified California domestic violence counselor and started volunteering in women’s shelters in her hometown of Los Angeles. During her freshman year at Berkeley, she continued volunteering in Oakland shelters. Both what she went through and her volunteering experiences have affected her deeply.
“Every woman in the shelter was under the age of 25,” Mancia says of her first visit to an Oakland shelter. “I understood the pain of violence and want to give back to that community.”
Seeing the impact that domestic violence was having on her peers, and noticing that there were no specific resources available to Berkeley students in abusive relationships prompted her to found the ASUC Intimate Partner Violence Commission.
“A lot of resources on campus were grouped with sexual assault or sexual violence,” says Mancia, “but intimate partner violence requires different types of resources than sexual assault. When you’re in a relationship with someone who is constantly hurting you, it’s not like a one-time sexual assault.”
Students who become commission members train student organizations — including sororities, fraternities and other campus groups — on intimate partner violence. They also lead workshops at student conferences, connect students experiencing intimate partner violence with resources like counseling or legal services and hold support groups on campus.
Mancia also goes out into classrooms across the Bay Area at least once a week, talking to young people about intimate partner violence. Her hope is that early education will help break the cycle of violence. So far, she and other commission members have taken their mission to six schools. By the end of the school year, she will have given her presentation to every student at Oakland Unity, including the one who approached her with the question about healing.
Communication is the first step, Mancia tells the student — being able to talk through trauma with a trusted counselor, friend or adult — as well as making sure that they’re taking advantage of available resources. Mancia and the student discuss the counseling that’s available, and Mancia applauds the student for getting out of the relationship.
“I think hearing me talk about this is inspiring for the students,” says Mancia. “I’m very open and sharing, and I understand their experience because I’ve been through this too. That gives me credibility with them. I think if they see someone else who went through it they’ll think, ‘Wow, she went through it and look how strong she is now.’”
“I told the student who was crying, ‘If you are ever able to be in a place where you want to give back, that’s always something you could do. It’s been something that’s helped me,’” she adds.
While Mancia now feels comfortable giving these presentations — the classroom with the crying student was just one of three that she was in that day, and she attended more at Berkeley — getting the program off the ground was a challenge.
In the beginning, “I learned that I’m going to face failure,” Mancia says. “I tried cold-calling high schools, pitching to them what I wanted to do, and I hardly ever heard back from them. Sometimes they would say, ‘This is great. I love this idea,’ and then nothing.”
The breakthrough came when a friend who graduated from ARISE High School, a charter school in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, introduced Mancia to her former principal. Once she had a foot in the door, the program grew organically through recommendations and word of mouth. From the beginning, the talks yielded results that surprised Mancia.
“I thought there was no way that they were going to pay attention,” Mancia recalls about a group of ninth grade boys she met during her first year. “I had low expectations of how impactful I would be. But I gave my whole presentation and I remember being so surprised because this room of boys started thanking me. I had a few of them say to me that if it weren’t for this presentation, they wouldn’t have known what was going on with their parents or that they were victims of domestic violence.”
“I was surprised by how insightful they were,” she adds. “Some of them even reflected on themselves and said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve done this to someone before.’ They’re not bad people at all. They were just misinformed on what an appropriate relationship is or how to act with their partner. I want them to know what they can do better or how they can behave going forward, because a lot people have hurt their intimate person in some way or done something that they regret.”
Mancia estimates that she’s presented to more than 1,000 students through her program. With membership on the Intimate Violence Commission now up to about a dozen, some members, like Garcia Villalta, are joining her in classrooms.
Their talk at Unity is straightforward. They present a few slides sprinkled with definitions and data, but the goal is to meet students where they are. Frequently, this means talking through ideas with examples or personal stories.
“Usually we’ll give an overview of what dating violence is and why it happens,” says Mancia. Intimate partner violence, she explains, is any type of physical or emotional abuse that a person uses against a partner, while domestic violence can be between family members who are not in an intimate relationship. When forming the commission, Mancia used the term “intimate partner violence” because it’s most applicable to young people.
“I try to make clear the differences between domestic violence and intimate partner violence,” says Mancia. “I’ve found that a lot of high school students don’t really engage when I talk about domestic violence because they think that I’m talking about marriage or family and children.”
Personal stories that begin with “In high school…” or “When I was younger…” pepper the presentation as a way of connecting with students who might feel isolated in their situations.
Mancia and Garcia Villalta emphasize that it wasn’t all that long ago that they were sitting in the same seats the students are in.
“We talk about technology a lot too,” says Mancia. “People can be bullied on Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram. I’ve worked with students who have said, ‘My boyfriend insists I turn on my location on my phone to see where I am, and then they’ll show up where I am.’ It’s scary.”
Fear is something that Mancia as well as the high school students have to deal with regularly. The sessions help them overcome their fears.
“It means so much,” says Mancia. “They’re not afraid to say something. I think these presentations are catalysts to get these students who are going through this to speak up.”
The second classroom at Unity is quieter than the first. No students are visibly upset, but a few approach Mancia and Garcia Villalta after the bell again to ask about volunteer opportunities at domestic violence shelters. In between the classes, Garcia Villalta and Mancia talk with Unity High’s dean of students, Michelle Batlle.
“She came to us at an opportune time,” Batlle says of Mancia. “Some of our kids were dealing with a lot these issues and we were seeing it affect their relationships and academics.”
According to Batlle, roughly 150 of the 340 students at Oakland Unity attend counseling, many because of issues at home.
“A lot of our students are survivors of either abuse or witness abuse between parents or boyfriends of moms, girlfriends of dads,” says Batlle. “I always check in with the teacher or advisor after Ana’s presentation and they always have positive things to say.”
“It’s important that the students have agency, and at the end of these presentations the kids feel empowered because there is hope and they can do something about it,” adds Batlle.
Mancia, a business major, describes herself as an entrepreneur and believes that her work at places like Unity is a forerunner of what she wants to focus on professionally.
“This is my passion,” says Mancia. “Best case scenario, of course, is to get into every high school in the Bay Area. Short of that, what I’d really like to do is institutionalize the dating violence program in high school – I’d love for this to be included in health classes. I would like that to be part of the curriculum and set in stone, not just something Berkeley students are doing on their own time.”
Down the road, Mancia envisions a non-profit that focuses on domestic violence prevention and support, something that can help break the cycle of violence.
“It feels like planting little seeds,” says Garcia Villalta. “The effect isn’t going to be immediate, it needs nourishing and needs growth. If anything, these are thoughts that these kids are going to have later on. They won’t necessarily recall us or our faces and that’s not what matters. What matters are the signs we wanted them to recognize.”
“I’ve been working with domestic violence issues for five years,” says Mancia. “I’ve realized that the way to break it is through children and through teenagers. They need to be able to break the mindset where violence or hurting someone is how they solve their problems.”