Prevention at the Groundwater: Addressing Racial Disparity

Aug 12th, 2020

By Beth Wynkoop, Prevention and Education Policy Advocate

In the last days of Spring 2020, the nation bore witness to one of the most significant civil rights movements in decades, as the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality highlighted the racist policies, systems, and beliefs in the United States.

For those who are dedicated to serving survivors and ending sexual violence, this is a moment to recommit to striving for racial justice, and to take a critical look at how our work intersects with these issues.

Prevention of sexual violence is inextricably linked to racial inequity, but we don’t always include this lens in our prevention approaches. To illustrate this point, we’ll borrow from the Racial Equity Institute’s (REI) “Groundwater Approach.” Imagine a pond where you spot a few fish that have died and are floating at the surface. You may assume that those few fish were just sick or old; individual problems but not reflective of anything larger. But when you come back to the pond a few days later, you see that it looks like nearly half of the fish have died and are floating on the surface. Now, you are likely concerned about the water in the pond itself; is it toxic, contaminated or otherwise harmful for the fish? You then take a long walk outside, and realize that every pond you come to for miles is filled with fish that have died and risen to the surface. These ponds aren’t, on their surface, visibly connected.  But there’s a greater, structural problem that we cannot see just by looking at the ponds; the contamination is in the groundwater.  

So how does this relate to sexual assault?  Often, when we think about prevention, we’re focused on single fish within a single pond. We want to stop individual assaults, one by one, by teaching skills around bystander intervention, or perhaps educating on consent or healthy relationships.

Sometimes, we may take a broader view and look at the whole pond, the whole community. We think about shifting social norms or creating protective spaces. We look at risk and protective factors and try to implement programming to shift these. For example, we know that poor parent-child relationships can be a risk factor, so we create parenting programs or host family-friendly events. We know that diminished economic opportunities and high unemployment can contribute to violence, so we bring in classes on financial planning and career coaching. But the major question we have a responsibility to ask as preventionists is: why? Why do we see these risk and protective factors so frequently? What systems and structures create these systems, and which racist policies and institutions may make oppressed populations more likely to be harmed?

When we talk about creating strong parent-child relationships, we have to talk about the disproportionate rate at which Black children are placed in the foster care, the heightened rates of Black maternal mortality, and the policies that lead to over-policing and jailing of Black men. When we talk about economic opportunities, we have to look at policies and systems that keep Black people from achieving equity like redlining and the racial wealth gap. Risk and protective factors do not arise solely due to individual behaviors; it is our job to look to the groundwater.

Addressing embedded systems and structures of racial inequality can feel daunting, but we cannot ignore this challenge. When we tackle prevention at the groundwater, we are addressing violence prevention at the earliest possible moment. It will create a more equitable society in which risk and protective factors are molded on a massive scale, and individual interventions will be needed less and less frequently.

Today, individual interventions are still vital. Community level interventions are still vital. But for our prevention efforts to be truly comprehensive, we need to also look to intervene at the groundwater.

To learn more about the Groundwater Approach, visit REI here.


To learn more about how the Groundwater Approach applies to Prevention, watch “Upstream, Same River? Rethinking the Bones of our System” from the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault.


Works Cited

Balko, R. (2020, June 10). There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is racist. Here’s the proof. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Racial disproportionality and disparity in child welfare. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Croft, C. (2020). Upstream, Same River? Rethinking the Bones of our System [Webinar}. NCCASA.

Darity Jr, W., Hamilton, D., Paul, M., Aja, A., Price, A., Moore, A., & Chiopris, C. (2018). What we get wrong about closing the racial wealth gap. Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

Hayes-Greene, D., and Bayard P. L. (2018). The Groundwater Approach: Building a Practical Understanding of Structural Racism. The Racial Equity Institute.

Kijakazi, K., Schwabish, J., & Simms, M. (2020, July 1). Racial Inequities Will Grow Unless We Consciously Work to Eliminate Them. Urban Wire. The Urban Institute.

Owens, D. C., & Fett, S. M. (2019). Black maternal and infant health: historical legacies of slavery. American journal of public health, 109(10), 1342-1345.

Wilkins, N., Tsao, B., Hertz, M., Davis, R., Klevens, J. (2014). Connecting the Dots: An Overview of the Links Among Multiple Forms of Violence.  Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Oakland, CA: Prevention Institute.

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