Donna Ferguson

Guest speaker, Donna Ferguson, deputy division chief, Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division, U.S. Army Police School, engages a Soldier during her presentation.

To change the culture of sexual assault and harassment, we must get to the heart of the matter — through changing the mindset. Donna Ferguson, deputy division chief, Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division, U.S. Army Police School, spoke about the importance of changing thoughts in order to change behaviors to the Fort Belvoir community, Wednesday in Thurman Hall.

Often times, people focus on reacting to the impact of a problem and not the root of it — at the heart, she said. As a result, nothing changes. However, by breaking through people’s strongholds, real change can begin, Ferguson said.

“Sexual assault is not a mind issue alone,” Ferguson said. “It’s a heart issue, because it’s personal.”

In today's culture, she said we try to fix the issue with more training.

“Out of the heart is where all of the issues actually sit, but we try to deal with heart issues with our mind and so training is not always the solution," she said. “With training, you teach muscle memory but education gives revelation. It’s not until you get the revelation that you actually change. Training in and of itself won't do it. Sexual assault is not a training problem, it's an educational problem. There's a difference between the two.”

Sexual assault is an impact of adverse culture, Ferguson said.

“If someone has a mental health disorder, it's also an impact and a lot of times we will call those things problems. But if you attempt to treat an impact as the problem, actually the situation gets worse — it doesn’t get better. The reason being is because you’re only focused on the impact — never the problem. And usually the problem is not what you obviously see.”

Changing the culture by getting at the heart of the problem starts with creating real relationships, instead of just fellowships, she said.

“Fellowship simply says we’re in the same unit, same uniform, same MOS, but I don’t have anything to do with you (because) I don't really know you. But if I have a relationship with you, I get to know the heart of who you are. Not your MOS, not your competence level as a Soldier, but I get to know the heart of who you are. And, when I know the heart of who you are, then I won’t hurt you and I won’t harm you but I'll walk with you. We are relational people and that’s what we need. Relationships actually heal one another. They don't hurt. So, I think that’s where the actual key is as far as relationships are concerned.”

Establishing relationships allows people to open up and share how they are really feeling. That’s another component of change — having real conversations, she said. When you talk about hard things and understand why others believe what they believe, you can then understand them without needing to agree with them. By allowing people to be real, it allows others to get at the heart of the matter.

For example, Ferguson said there is more male on male sexual assault than male on female, something often not discussed. Victims, no matter their sex, also have trouble coming forward because they feel someone won't believe them or they feel embarrassment about coming forward. Instead of that person opening up and seeking out support from others, they shut down.

People can mask their real problems, or others can perceive things incorrectly by not looking below the surface. The loud, obnoxious guy may be hiding behind that facade to mask feelings of insecurity, she said. Something she has encountered often enough while doing therapy sessions.

A Soldier attending the event disclosed how he turned to alcohol after his twin brother died in theater.

Ferguson said people might look at him and think alcohol was his problem, but it was actually the death of his brother that was the root cause of his current issues. She encouraged people to look beyond where and how they meet others, and really understand who people are through establishing real relationships and conversations.

“All we know is we met the alcoholic, or the attitude guy -- never knowing what took them down that particular road,” she said.

As you begin to really question your own thoughts and beliefs, and really understand those of others — change begins to happen. Change begins with the individual, Ferguson said. That can also mean developing the personal courage to speak up and come forward or help others to do so.

“When you change, guess what happens around you? Change,” she said. “Be a game changer.”