Written by Mike Savona
How does a 20-year old Kensington native find herself sitting on panel discussions with domestic and dating violence experts and victims pursuing her mission to bring awareness to the public about the dangers of teen dating violence? The answer is simple – she’s Luvonda Harris and she cares deeply about helping other people and helping others to understand that it is not ok to suffer abuse in their relationships.
Luvonda says her drive to make things better for other people are a direct result of her experiences growing up in Kensington. For her first 9 years, Luvonda witnessed the devastation brought about by drug addiction and neighborhood violence. “Walking past murder scenes to catch the school bus left me with a deep desire to make things better – to make the world better” says Luvonda. “It really impacts how you see other people and how you look for ways to change things for the better.”
Luvonda found an outlet for her desire to help others in 2016, while she was a student at Franklin Learning Center. She enrolled in a summer program called S.T.A.R. (Students Talking About Relationships) at the Lutheran Settlement House, a non-profit, community-based organization founded in 1902 and committed to serving children, adults and families living in Philadelphia. Luvonda was drawn to the S.T.A.R. program, which focused on exploring the issue of violence and abuse in teen dating relationships, because she grew up in a home where she witnessed her mother and other members of her family suffer domestic abuse.
“People tend to minimize the issue of abuse in teen dating relationships – to the point that they rationalize it as acceptable behavior. That is not right” says Luvonda. “It’s important that people understand not just that verbal and physical violence in relationships is abuse but also controlling behavior or using money to control other people’s behavior is also abusive.” Luvonda explains that “any manipulation in a relationship that is based on fundamental inequality is abuse and that is not ok.”
Luvonda studied the issue of teen dating violence and participated in panel discussions and listened to testimonials from victims who experienced violence and abuse in their relationships during her time with the S.T.A.R. program. Realizing that engaging more people in panel discussions and bringing forward more witness testimonials is a particularly effective method to shine a light on the issue – which she describes as under recognized and underappreciated, Luvonda began working with the Domestic Violence Abuse Project of Delaware County (“DAP”) while a student at Rosemont College. Through her work with DAP, Luvonda participates in panel discussions and attends conferences to focus broader public attention on the problem of teen dating violence. “I like to shine a light on this issue because it affects so many young people and because it doesn’t get the attention that it needs,” says Luvonda.
When she isn’t engaged in public outreach, Luvonda spends her days studying psychology and sociology as a member of the Rosemont College class of 2023. She currently seeking a 6-year M.S./Ph.D. program in the School of Psychology at Rosemont, and she has big goals for her career after graduation.
“I’d like to continue to work on the issue of teen dating violence and I am interested in practice as a psychologist,” she says, but she also her eye fixed on bigger ways to bring change to the community. “Recently my childhood home in Kensington burned down. I’d love to rebuild it and use it as a catalyst to redevelop the neighborhood around it,” says Luvonda. “To incorporate neighborhood redevelopment and affordable housing in that area would bring so much opportunity for change – it’s exciting to think about the possibilities that could bring to so many lives!”
When asked what inspires her, Luvonda points to her experiences witnessing her mother and other members of her family experience domestic violence. “Witnessing this behavior made me understand that more people need to know this issue exists and that it is not ok for anyone to be taken advantage of in their relationships,” says Luvonda. This experience, as well as her experiences growing up in Kensington motivate her to always strive to make things better for others. When asked what success means to her, Luvonda says that “dedication and commitment” define success.
“Obtaining a goal is one thing, but maintaining that goal is something else and requires work and focus and attention. If you can maintain your goals – that is success.”