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A prevention education toolkit designed to instill Empathy and Empower youth to achieve Equality.

Coordinated by Project Concern International (PCI) in partnership with the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office

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Message from San Diego's District Attorney

“This innovative curriculum for children and youth will help support a community that teaches and encourages the three E’s—Equality through Empathy and Empowerment. As District Attorney, I believe that investing in early prevention and intervention can build a new generation with strong roots of humanity and dignity based in genuine respect for the different sexes, races and cultural backgrounds. This program is a pathway to healthier communities without domestic violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, hate based and gang violence.”
-Summer Stephan, San Diego County District Attorney

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The Three E’s

Project ROOTS, formerly known as Girls Only! and Boys Only!, was founded on the need to address the root causes of gender-based violence including commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, rape, domestic violence, and sexual assault in the local context of San Diego, California. Project ROOTS is a conscious effort to move away from the binary impression of Boys Only! and Girls Only!, because although there are documented benefits to same sex groups, the toolkit is gender-transformative and does not discriminate on the basis of sex. Creating safe spaces for children and adolescents to challenge gender roles and stereotypes and promote gender-equitable relationships, regardless of sex, is critical.      

The Girls Only! (GO!) toolkit was developed by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and the City of San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention in 2009 to address girls’ increased gang affiliation. Growing concerns of the commercial sexual exploitation of girls prompted Project Concern International’s (PCI) 2015 contribution which incorporated activities to mitigate this form of victimization. The International Labor Office estimates women and girls accounted for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry in 2016 and 58% in other sectors. The disproportionate victimization and perpetration prompted an urgency to create a safe space for community mentorship where young boys could discuss issues that, at their core, paralleled those of their female counterparts. As a result, the first version of Boys Only! (BO!) was completed and piloted in 2017.

Traditional prevention efforts such as public awareness campaigns and education can inform a community on how to identify or navigate a problem, but do not always address the root causes or cultural norms that perpetuate it. By failing to see primary prevention efforts through a gender-lens, we unintentionally contribute to victim-blaming as though the problem or behavior is inevitable all the while perpetration remains prevalent and unaddressed. Traditional prevention efforts also pose ethical limitations that cannot be ignored since victimization is potentially redirected to those that lack the knowledge to anticipate and avoid injury. Project ROOTS recognizes that effective primary prevention engages both the potential victim and the potential perpetrator. It seeks to equip youth, both male and female, with the tools necessary to empathize with one another, recognize and question inequalities, and empower them to speak against them.  

The toolkit is a guide for implementing a gender-specific, culturally responsive, and developmentally appropriate prevention education program for boys and girls age 8 to 13. The goal of working with youth during this critical period of childhood and adolescence is to model the soft skills necessary as they physically and developmentally mature. The toolkit provides an overview of current research to first understand the challenges negatively affecting our youth. The activities are then organized into three overarching themes; Empathy, Empowerment, and Equality. Project ROOTS first introduces the concepts of self-love, emotional intelligence, and compassion, continuously promoting healthy expression, relationships, and boundaries. Project ROOTS discussion topics include:   

  1. Inclusion & Diversity

  2. Emotional Intelligence

  3. Bullying

  4. Self-Love

  5. Communication

  6. Healthy Relationships        

  7. Consent & Boundaries

  8. Successful Planning

  9. Technology Use and Safety

  10. Gender Roles & Stereotypes                   

  11. Human Trafficking

It is through a gradual process that girls and boys begin to question the destructive cultural elements that surround them, such as exploitation. Project ROOTS addresses human trafficking, specifically the growing problem of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and sex trafficking and includes specialized activities to prevent both potential victimization – sexual, physical, and/or emotional- and predatory behavior. As a gender-transformative program, Project ROOTS creates safe spaces for Participants to begin questioning the cultural normalization of violence, their association to peers who tolerate it, the destructive norms that valorize power, and the violence that surrounds them at home and/or in their community. All this happens within the context of social emotional learning (SEL), the stepping stone to Project ROOTS. Project ROOTS acknowledges the importance of SEL and its impact on a child’s achievements and outcomes beyond school.

Distinct from what an instructional setting can offer, Project ROOTS’ “safe spaces” provide opportunities for healthy youth development.  They invite and encourage self-exploration, inclusivity, emotional freedom, and mutual satisfaction in relationships. This strength-based model is designed to bolster socially conscious youth who embrace and celebrate diversity and reject the objectification of both men and women. It incorporates reputably effective approaches to primary prevention including consistent mentorship, supportive peer-to-peer interactions, and activities that fortify a youth’s sense of self-efficacy to ultimately inspire youth to become resilient catalyst of change.



the ability to understand and share the feelings of another



the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights



the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities


Thank you to the San Diego Youth Empowerment Committee for coming together and providing your input throughout this process. A special thanks to Janet Ruiz and Jack Sabraw for their extensive research, compilation of the activities, personal insights and overall enthusiasm for this program. Important contributors also include JJ Anderson and Grace Liu with Prevention and Intervention Programs at the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and Bianca Morales-Egan with Project Concern International (PCI). Notable mention to our student staff that supported the creation of Project ROOTS, Eleonor Bartolome, Brittany Beisner, Luciano De Luca, Maya Shahar, and Doreann Wiley. A whole-hearted thank you to Tom Jones for sharing your survival story and serving as our guiding light throughout the creation of this toolkit. Another huge thank you to the boys and girls from Lincoln High School for your insightful feedback and insight!  Finally, we thank the reviewers of this toolkit including Dr. Marshall Whiting and Amy Sunseri of PCI for their helpful input and expert critique.

 Special thanks to the Walter J. and Betty C. Zable Foundation and the Rancho Santa Fe Women’s Fund for funding the development of this toolkit and setting a precedent in building a community of resilient youth.

“Because now I know how to be me and let no one stop me.”

june 2018

 Project ROOTS Facilitator Testimonial

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