A child died a brutal, needless death. It was every parent’s worst nightmare realized. It was not an illness that entered a home in Hartford, Wisconsin on July 15th, 2013. It was not an addiction that crept up the stairs to the 19 year-old’s bedroom. It was not an accident that opened the door, attacked, beat, and finally strangled Jessie Blodgett. It was a friend, a male friend.
Jessie was the light of her parents’ lives. “I love kids,” says her dad, Buck Blodgett, “and I always wanted to have children. I ended up with one, Jessie.” Dad and daughter were close enough that they took daily walks through the neighborhood, even during those angst-ridden teenage years. They talked and shared, laughed and got serious, running the gamut of topics. The trust that developed in those companionable strolls assisted both parent and child over the bumps that inevitably arose as Jessie transitioned from child to teen to young adult.
“Jessie was lionhearted,” Blodgett recalled, “and she loved to debate.” Her interests took her from the Daily Show, to the Colbert Report, and on to social issues, which, as she grew, included, poignantly, male-on-female violence. And then, in the space of minutes, the vitality, spirit, and future of Jessie Blodgett was extinguished.
It takes little imagination for anyone who has loved a child to conjure the chill, the emptiness, the bottomless ache of loss, and the fury that would arise from such savagery. Buck Blodgett is a man who believes he was put on earth to be Jessie’s father. How then should he live when his job is over? As a longtime Landmark graduate, trained in transformation and possibility, Buck had developed a powerfully positive mindset.
Nevertheless, of all the possibilities of emotion, reactions to horror, and responses to sadness that humans can concoct, Buck’s surprised even him. When talking to the media shortly after his daughter died and at her memorial service, Buck offered that “One of the things I feel that Jessie wants me to say is that love is stronger than hate, and always will be.” Somehow, this father’s boundless love for his child had taken a path away from anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge and into the realm of forgiveness and compassion. In private, he came to terms with the deed without damning the doer. In court, Buck forgave the young man convicted of this crime. In public, he has sympathized with the boy’s parents and family and mentioned their caring and love for their son.
The idea of “love is stronger than hate”, spoken out of pain, soon sourced a mission, an organization that seeks to eradicate male-on-female violence by sharing Jessie’s story, the family’s pain, and the possibilities that arise from caring enough about who Jessie was to keep her spirit alive in a positive way. Jessie’s death gave birth to the LOVE>hate Project, a non-profit that is reaching out to teens, young people, and adults and asking for a commitment to non-violence.
“I didn’t have a vision about where this would go,” admits Buck. “People just started commenting on what I had said, and somehow, it came into being.” So, can a single event, even one as heartbreaking as this, spur a movement? Unfortunately, it is not a single event. The United States has a lamentable history when it comes to male-on-female violence, sexual assault, rape, and battering. The statistics are staggering, but one figure gives an idea of the scope of this problem. The hotline for Domestic Violence Against Women, first hooked up in 1996, has received well over 3,000,000 calls in the intervening 19 years–more than three million calls from women in fear of their health, welfare, and life.
The LOVE>hate Project is focused on reaching the boys and girls who might become doers and victims and is, instead, turning them into partners against violence. “The presentation is a story that makes the impact of violence very clear,” Buck explains. “Then you tell them about friendship and love.”
The first place he wanted to take the LOVE>hate Project was the schools, but several friends and colleagues warned against it. “You do not want to go to a high school assembly,” they insisted. “You can get eaten alive.” So, he went. The presentation brought astonishing reactions. After sharing Jessie’s story, explaining the consequences for everyone involved, and offering a solution based on personal commitment, Buck invited the boys to sign the LOVE>hate Project Pledge, which reads:
To never ever
Hit, hurt, or otherwise harm
A woman, girl, or child.
That I am bigger and stronger
Than many women, girls, and children.
Therefore it is my DUTY
To NEVER HARM them,
But rather to Protect, Respect, Honor, and Love them
No matter what.
Watching 700 young men stream out of the bleachers and line up to sign the pledge was a vision Jessie would have applauded. Her father’s heart rejoiced. The pledge is not just for men to sign, it is an idea that women need to honor with their own choice of partner. In fact, the website exhorts girls and women to offer the pledge to the men of their choice. “Women, ask your man to take The Pledge. If he won’t, what are you doing with him?!” Buck encourages all the young people attending each presentation to begin a conversation about violence with their current partner and with any future partner in just the same way they would discuss likes and dislikes, religion, or goals.
Violence is a difficult topic, but young people need to know, and they want to be respected enough to be invited into the conversation. This was evident when Buck went to Escuela Verde, a charter school in Milwaukie dedicated to creating a “community that is participatory, just, sustainable, and peaceful,” according to their website. It is, arguably, a school for students who haven’t fared well elsewhere. Still, the students sat in respectful and riveted silence while the story of Jessie’s life and death unfolded. For many of these students, violence has been a regular, if unwelcome, visitor on the streets and in their lives.
“They got it,” Buck tells us. “They only want a chance, so I told them that it was up to them to get the message out. They were the next step in the project.” While no statistics exist for what happened after, Buck and the project leaders heard from Madisen Stoler, the coordinator at Escuela Verde, who said “The kids are still talking about the presentation.”
Now eighteen months and many presentations in, Buck realizes that he is only one man, and so his goal is to expand the speaker pool, to train other presenters in the specifics of the LOVE>hate Project mission and have them carry the message in ever-widening ripples across the nation. To that end, he wants to hear from parents who have lost a child to violence, from friends who have lost someone they care about, and from educators who have experienced the loss of a student. “A story told truthfully has power.” Those who communicate from that space have the ability to change hearts and move people to action.
In addition to story tellers and presenters committed to the project goals, the LOVE>hate Project also welcomes suggestions, information about resources and fundraising, donations and volunteers. Buck, his wife, and the staffers of the project are determined that “this message will spread and it will do it, not based on harsher laws, or greater penalties, but on the basis of love. We want to raise awareness, shift culture, cause change, and end male against female violence while expanding our sense of being loved.”
If you are moved to action, ask for a presentation at your place of business or school. Next, print a copy of the attached pledge. When it is signed, send a picture to Buck.
Email: ligthpr[email protected]
Address: The LOVE > hate Project, 3560 Wayside Drive, Hartford, WI 53027