Chris sits for a portrait in his office in Vera House
Chris Kosakowski, the head of prevention and education team for Vera House, reaches 8,778 people with his Prevention and Education Program.

Chris Kosakowski struggled to constrain his anger.

Sitting in their off-campus apartment, Kosakowski and his friend took a break from studying for their psychology exam and started talking. The conversation was flowing as they bounced from topic to topic. At 3 a.m., the tone shifted from late-night chat to a heart-to-heart.

That’s when Kosakowski’s friend told him her story of abuse at the hands of a romantic partner.

Kosakowski felt an “unbridled rage” well up inside him. He wanted to find the perpetrator and lash out at him.

But that’s not what Kosakowski’s friend needed from him at that moment. He knew he needed to show support and empathy. He had to reserve judgment and avoid probing questions.

“I realized that this was the first time my friend was able to talk to someone about this,” Kosakowski said. “That this was the first time they were listened to, the first time they felt supported and heard.”

In that moment, something clicked for Kosakowski, campus team coordinator for Vera House, Onondaga County’s nonprofit domestic and sexual violence agency.

“Around my sophomore year of college, I looked around my group of friends, and I realized that every person had been impacted by domestic or sexual violence to some degree,” Kosakowski said. “I realized I needed to do something to make a change.”

Chris Kosakowski walks down the stairs of Vera House

Working to End Relationship Violence

Sister Mary Vera founded Vera House in 1977 when she recognized a need for emergency shelter services for women. The mission has broadened to include services such as outreach, advocacy, education programming, children’s counseling, and an accountability program for people who cause harm in relationships.

Vera House offers a variety of services through its shelter, counseling, and advocacy programs. In 2020, its shelter program served 242 adults and children, according to the nonprofit’s annual report. The counseling program helped 967 individuals in more than 7,00 sessions. And the Advocacy Program supported thousands of clients — 4,927 hotline calls, 271 online chats, and 120 walk-ins.

Meanwhile, prevention and education programs reached 8,778 people in 19 schools and local community groups. The program focuses on youth education programs for a key, but often overlooked, demographic in conversations about relationship violence — men. The objectives are to raise awareness about healthy relationships and encourage men to commit to ending violence.

“When we are making the world safer for survivors and victims, we are making the world safer for everyone,” Kosakowski said.

Alternative Solutions

Vera House’s Alternatives/STEPS programs aim to help challenge the attitudes of men and women who have been abusive in relationships. While the COVID-19 pandemic halted programming for six months in 2020, the programs served 348 people, 93% of whom were men.

Programs include “Men. Lead By Example,” which encourages men and boys to act as allies to prevent violence and create healthy relationships, and the “12 Men Model.” That initiative invites men to take on a leadership role and recruit other men to join in the pledge of redefining masculinity.

In 2020, 92% of defendants in domestic abuse prosecutions were recorded as male, according to the Office of National Statistics. Vera House’s 2020 report shows that 323 men were served in its Alternatives Program, which challenges the beliefs and attitudes of adults who cause harm.

SU alumnus Eric McGriff worked at Vera House with Kosakowski and now does similar prevention training in New York City.

“It was helpful to have diverse men around me having conversations every single week to make me think differently about my masculinity, to expand it, to diversify it, and to show me that it’s okay to do that,” McGriff said. “And that it doesn’t make me any less of a person or man.”

Sexual violence emerged as a central issue at Syracuse University this year, as assault survivors and student protestors demanded more accountability, programs to end rape culture, and more services for students who take legal action against their abusers. The protests come as evidence mounts that COVID and other factors have pushed relationship violence rates higher in the broader community.

Organizations like Vera House struggle to provide services to more victims than ever while
COVID erodes key sources of funding. All of this has made jobs like Kosakowski’s more important — and more difficult.

Finding His Place in The Fight

As a child, Kosakowski dreamed of being a Lego engineer. As he grew up, his aspirations shifted from engineer to vet to guidance counselor. By the time he was entering college, Kosakowski had some clarity on what he wanted to do:

“I wanted to do something to help people, to connect with people, to build rapport with people and make changes,” he said. “I just didn’t know what that meant yet.”

During his time at Syracuse University, Kosakowski explored many different paths, but things fell into place when he began taking a sexuality course. The class taught students what it meant to be human in relation to others. He soon became the teacher’s assistant and understood the power of tackling these important subjects with peers.

“The most amount of change will happen when you get people in a room together and create a space where it is safe to talk about whatever you want to talk about,” Kosakowski said.

Professor Joseph Fanelli’s human sexuality course, CFS 388, is the reason he got involved in wanting to be an educator about these issues.

Andrea Graziano — who lived on the same floor as Kosakowski as a freshman at SU in 2009 — said Kosakowski can connect with a lot of different types of people.

“As a queer person, as a person of color, he’s able to speak to experiences and connect with people whose voices are not always amplified in mainstream culture or in education,” Graziano said.

The two have been best friends for 12 years. Graziano, now at the University of North Carolina completing her master’s in social work, recalled times where Kosakowski openly shared his hardships with their friends, creating space for others to do the same.

She also remembered the switch in Kosakowski when he finally started down the social work career path.

“It truly is the right fit for him,” said Graziano, who noticed that after discovering his passion, Kosakowski felt “so much more fulfilled by the courses he was taking, by the work he was engaging in.”

Kosakowski got started in this field as an undergrad at Syracuse University through the Advocacy Center that was on campus. The center, which has now been removed, was a designated haven on campus that provided education on the reality and prevention of sexual assault.

“As a cis-gender male, I had a different level of privilege in being able to have conversations about this and advocate for things,” Kosakowski said. “I knew something had to happen and thankfully the Advocacy Center was there for me to get involved.”

He used his privilege “as a white-passing cis-gender man” — a man whose personal identity and gender correspond with his birth sex — to speak up for those on the margins. “I knew that that meant I needed to do something to work to make a difference and to make a change,” he said.

Kosakowski completed his undergraduate degree in 2013 and received his master’s degree from Syracuse University in 2018. Now, his team works to deliver training and prevention tools to college students and faculty.

The tools include awareness and the ability to have open, vulnerable conversations. It also focuses on witnesses to predatory and inappropriate behavior, teaching bystanders how to intervene.

Kosakowski said he works hard to make the training relevant to the person he is working with. For instance, a bystander may think, “‘I don’t want to get physically involved in something,” Kosakowski said. But Kosakowski encourages them to intervene in a way they feel comfortable, without ignoring the behavior altogether. Maybe they “can talk it out with someone or pull someone aside and explain how it’s not cool,” Kosakowski explained.

When presenting to men, the training focuses on how socialization has shaped our understanding of gender and relationships.

“The training looks at those social messages we receive, the social norms that get perpetuated, how we can look at masculinity and what it means to be a man,” Kosakowski explained. “We dissect those and talk about the emotions we are allowed to express, the gender roles we are supposed to play out and how that impacts relationships.”

Chris Kosakowski poses for portrait at an open door

Kosakowski calls on men to hold each other accountable.

“It starts with understanding the impact and having the awareness of knowing that even if it is just a little comment or joke, here is how that plays out in the big picture of things,” he said.

Nicole Blidy, one of the prevention educators and campus advocates on his team, praised her supervisor for his passion and ability to make connections.

“He is really, really good at what he does. He is so smart and cares so deeply about the people we serve, his employees, and the work. That’s the bottom line,” Blidy said. “That’s Chris.”

Kosakowski works with nine local colleges to open the conversation around issues of domestic and sexual violence – what it means, how to prevent it, how to be aware of it. He emphasizes that choosing to go to college is choosing to continue to learn and develop.

“Part of that growth and development process,” Kosakowski said, “can also be talking about how you are growing in relationships and how you are growing in understanding consent.”

For men, growth and development can also include learning what it means to be a man and how to use that privilege to prevent gender-based violence. Kosakowski exemplifies the shift in thinking that just one training can provide.

“I noticed some of the guys were scoffing at the stuff I was saying or making victim-blaming jokes, but I would engage with them and lean into their jokes to build a conversational relationship,” he said.

By keeping them in the conversation, Kosakowski pushed the men to think of what their jokes actually meant. He posed the question, “What would you do if that was someone you actually knew?” and he saw the gears start to click.

“Within the hour, they went from making these problematic jokes to being the ones most engaged and talking about some deeper-level stuff,” Kosakowski said.

Kosakowski acknowledges that when institutions provide opportunities for an open dialogue around these issues, it makes the workshops, training, and conversations easier. He works with first-year students, athletes, resident assistants, Greek life, student organizations and faculty.

Kosakowski says some of the most productive conversations he has had were while training fraternity members. He tailors the presentation to the community and culture, using realistic scenarios to help the men comprehend.

“If you see one of your brothers feeding someone drinks and trying to make them go upstairs, how can you actually step in and do something?” he asked. “What does that mean for your brother, your fraternity, for you as a person? How do you hold each other accountable and step up?”

He said it’s important to realize most men, including fraternity brothers, want violence against women and others to end and don’t want to be associated with groups that are seen as perpetuating violence.

“I don’t think anyone wants these things to happen,” Kosakowski said. “It’s that when it does happen, how do we respond and how do we act, and who do we hold accountable for it. … That’s where I think the challenge has been.”

Stand with Survivors SU recently released their official manifesto with demands of new policies they want implemented on campus. One of these includes re-establishing the Advocacy Center as a resource with connections to Vera House, Planned Parenthood, Barnes Counseling Center, DPS, and Title IX.

Kosakowski was optimistic the demands could be implemented. After emphasizing the initial step of believing survivors, he said his team starts by supporting the movement.

He reassured the students from the Stand with Survivors coalition that his team at Vera House will partner with them and have future conversations. Although he cannot speak for the university, Kosakowski thinks the calls for accountability, preventative measures, and collaboration are reasonable demands that can kickstart the conversation.

The Barnes Center now has a representative from Vera House who holds weekly office hours for students.

“Change can be difficult, and change can be scary, and change can take some time,” he admitted. “But I think it doesn’t take time to begin a conversation about how these things can be rolled out.”