How New York nonprofit Day One combats dating violence by confronting popular culture

Illustration by Zach Williams/ NYN Media
Nonprofit Day One combats dating violence by countering dating perceptions in popular culture.

How New York nonprofit Day One combats dating violence by confronting popular culture

February 20, 2018

By the time the ex-boyfriend showed up at an after-school sports practice, AnnaMarie Leal had begun to fear for the safety of her friend.

The friend had broken up with the ex-boyfriend after his jealous behavior had become too much. Now just like in the movies he had come to her practice, ostensibly to win her back. His presence however did not go unnoticed by athletic coaches at the New York City high school, who intervened before the ex-boyfriend could launch into any sort of romantic soliloquy – or worse.

Leal recalls that her friend could have used some of the advice that Leal had just received at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where Leal is now a freshman. The city-based nonprofit Day One had just concluded a workshop on dating violence, which included a lengthy discussion on how to draw the proper boundaries between the romantic behavior people see in movies like The Notebook and Twilight and the troubling behavior those movies can make appear respectable.

"I wish she had gone through something like this beforehand so she would have known how to deal with it,” Leal said in an interview.


That Feb. 13 workshop with more than a dozen students was part of a larger strategy for Day One. The 15-year-old organization educates young people, caseworkers and the public on the emotional and physical violence that has afflicted roughly one in three high school girls in romantic relationships. February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and Day One has a message to spread online, by word-of-mouth, and through social media about how to spot troubling behavior before it leads to serious harm.

Through public awareness efforts among 75,000 New York City students over the years and direct services to dating violence survivors, the story of Day One has focused on becoming a leading voice in the city on the issue of dating violence, states the organization’s website  And a key part of that involves looking at what inspires our ideas of romance in the first place, according to Johanna Burgos, a Day One organizer.

“What are things that are normalized in our relationships that are not healthy?” she said in an interview.

The point was not to demonize the plots of romantic stories but rather to highlight how they might appear troubling in the real world, Burgos told the students. Sneaking into a love interest’s bedroom for months on end in order to watch them sleep was just one example from the Feb. 13 workshop of how the behavior of a fictional vampire should not apply to real life. 

More than 2.5 million women nationwide experienced stalking behavior and 8.5 million women were raped before the age of 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. Overall, one in four women and one in nine men across the country have been affected by some form of emotional or physical abuses from someone they dated, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found in 2017.

But Day One has also had to keep up with the times itself, whether that involves preparing an animated public awareness video about dating violence in partnership with other organizations, or educating young people about their rights in an increasingly digital world – like showing young people and advocates alike that apps on smartphones can help stalkers follow their prey.

“That’s the kind of thing that we’ve had to train judges on,” Lorena Jiron, a legal fellow at Day One, said in an interview. “Drawing the line or explaining that line or the boundary that can be crossed when it comes to something that looks like or is portrayed as love and then can actually be abused is really difficult from our legal perspective because the law is so slow. It’s slow to change. It’s slow to adapt and it’s slow to keep up.”


Zach Williams
Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at New York Nonprofit Media and sister publication City & State.