The men in the circle are here to change behaviors that can be intimidating and frightening to their families.
Some have been accused of abusing those who are often the closest to them: their wives and girlfriends. In some cases, victims include their children, who are either the targets or witness abusive behavior.
On other nights, men come to Men Stopping Violence to learn more about domestic violence or to be part of a movement to end violence against women.
Experts say the best way to end domestic violence is not only to help the victims but to address the societal issues that create an atmosphere for abuse and to hold men accountable for their behaviors.
Domestic abuse isn’t always a slap or a punch or a push. It can be verbal, emotional or psychological.
The aim is the same, however: control and power.
“We’re about her safety,” said Sulaiman Nuriddin, director of men’s education at Men Stopping Violence, a Decatur-based nonprofit. “That’s what this work is all about, creating safety for women and girls.”
Georgia ranks ninth in the nation when it comes to the number of women murdered by men, according to the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based educational and research group that works to end gun violence.
In most of those cases, the victim was the wife, common-law wife, ex-wife or girlfriend of the offender.
Recently, there has been more effort on holding men accountable.
Several National Football League players participated in the league’s anti-domestic violence public service announcement, “No More.” The PSA challenged the excuses that are used to not confront cases of abuse.
The campaign included New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back William Gay.
The league has taken a lot of heat for its handling of the Ray Rice incident. Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, was caught on an elevator video slugging his now-wife, Janay Rice.
Raksha, a Georgia-based nonprofit organization for the South Asian community, works with survivors of domestic violence. Although it doesn’t have programs that specifically focus on men who are accused of abuse, Executive Director Aparna Bhattacharyya said such programs can be beneficial “if someone has an open mind and a willingness to change. If not, it’s not going to have an impact.”
“We need to have multiple ways for us to address men’s use of domestic violence against women,” she said. “Different people respond to different methods.”
Donna Brock, associate vice president for strategic communications at Clark Atlanta University, said the school has a campaign to address domestic and dating violence on campus. Goals include training students to be advocates and peer educators.
“Our approach is that you have to include the entire community,” she said. “If you always tell the men in the community that you’re bad, you’re evil, you’re the problem, then you will never get to constructive solutions.”
At Men Stopping Violence, participants have included physicians, lawyers, custodians, educators and city workers.
“No one is immune to the use of controlling tactics in a relationship,” Nuriddin said. “I believe all of us are on the continuum somewhere. We’re all men and all working on the same goal of being better husbands, better fathers, better partners and better men.”
The organization, which was founded 32 years ago, works to create a safe community for women and girls. It does so by working with men, including those who have been accused of domestic violence.
“It’s a systemic, cultural problem, and if we’re really going to end violence against women and girls, we’re going to have to address it at all of those angles,” said Executive Director Ulester Douglas. “This is not a problem of a few bad guys. It is a social problem that requires a social response. We all have a role in the solution. “
In fact, he said only a small percentage of men end up in programs like his. Most never get any help.
That’s why “we have to send a strong message through our actions, and from every part of our community, that violence against women and girls is reprehensible and will not be tolerated.”
Three nights a week, men gather in an open space at the nonprofit’s offices in an office park off I-285. They have homework and reading assignments. They’re there to support as well as challenge one another’s behaviors.
One man checks another when he says he withdraws from his wife when he’s upset. “One of the things I learned was that not communicating is sort of a control tactic,” he said. “Always communicate, even if what you say is going to hurt. Holding it in is a lot worse than letting it out.”
He and the others have agreed to let a newspaper reporter sit in on the session as long as their names aren’t used. Some men are there voluntarily.
Others are there under court orders.
Halfway through the program, participants have to bring one man in their lives to come and be part of an effort to hold them accountable. Each man is also required to do a community project with other men in his life around the program’s curriculum.
One man, who went through the program, said it helped change his behavior. He was self-referred but was later ordered by the courts.
“I did a lot of things,” said the man, who is 40 and makes about $50,000 annually in sales. “The benefit is I have much more of an ability to take care of myself in moments of challenge. When I may have resorted to using abusive or violent behavior, I think another way. I’m more in control of my thinking and feelings.”
That’s one way programs can help.
Jan Christiansen, executive director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, thinks “it’s just time for people to stand up and say it’s not OK and we need to hold batterers accountable in ways that work.”
“Not everything is going to work for every person. You have to take into account the communities and the people who live in them. … We can’t keep looking at things from a cookie-cutter approach.”
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