#BeNice: The Power of Youth Voices

I get to work with some pretty amazing young people on a regular basis.  It’s honestly inspiring to realize how many young people are out there in the world, working daily to improve their communities and our society.

Thus, when I got to work with a school in Washington recently, I was expecting to find some pretty phenomenal young people, but I wasn’t prepared for the force for good named Jake.

During our UPstander Intervention Training, I talked to the students at Jake’s school about the idea of being social normers, of being the change you wish to see in your school so that you can inspire others to do the same.  We talked about how social norming helps to change the air students breath in school to make it more inclusive, which makes the other work of being an UPstander far easier.

While talking to these students, though, I didn’t realize that one of the students to whom I was speaking could easily have been up there offering his wisdom.  After all, not long before I came to his school, Jake had made this video:

One of the most common forms of ageism toward young people in our society today is thinking that as adults, young people have nothing to teach us.  Often adults pretend that we have the whole world figured out and that young folks will one day know as much as we do if they make it to the magical world we call adulthood.

In reality, though, young people are often the ones with the most to teach.  After all, they have not been fully clouded by the cynicism or negativity that sometimes comes with age.  Even more, young people are engaging with the world in ways that those of us even ten years older than them could not have imagined at their age.  Youth are inspiring revolutions in the Arab Spring and transforming their communities through activism and servant leadership in every community around the world.  Plus, with the power of the internet that they know so well, they have the ability to learn from other young people as well as from elders in ways I never would have imagined at sixteen.

What Jake reminded me, not only when I met him or when I first saw this video but in our continuing relationship through social media, is that I have a lot to learn.

And Jake reminded me that sometimes the best teachers are those who are many years younger than me.

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Guest Post – What is Normal? Addressing Violence with Young People

This week’s post comes from a man that I admire tremendously, a friend and ally from college.

Benjamin SmithBenjamin Smith is in his first year of law school at the University of Oregon where he is looking to focus on Child Advocacy and Domestic Violence Law. Previously he was the Male Involvement Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work there was facilitating primary prevention of sexual violence with youth of color and young men in central New Mexico. He graduated from Earlham College in 2010 with a degree in Economics. He can be reached at: bsmith13 |at| uoregon.edu

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What do you consider normal?

I work in the field of primary prevention of sexual violence, and in doing so, I work with many diverse populations.  My focus, though, is with youth of Color, ages 12-18. This is one of the first things I ask them.  I say, “If you see your neighbor reading his newspaper on his porch in his underwear, would that be weird for you?”  They giggle and cringe thinking about the perceived awkwardness. Then I ask , “What if you saw it every day for years, he always does the same thing. Would it be weird then?” They shake their heads, many times even responding that it would be “normal,” and I explain that this is called “normalization.”

But when we get into discussions of what normalized violence they see or feel, the conversation is divergent from how normalization is many times approached. The conversation doesn’t usually, as I first expected, focus on the media and the messages that the youth were constantly being bombarded with but instead often focuses on real violence they were experiencing.

This was jarring for me. Having the privilege of never experiencing domestic and sexual violence, I was confident in dealing in the abstracts of the media and language we use, only to be confronted with a male student, 13, who was almost in tears after a session where we discussed sexual harassment. He came up to me after the program.

“You’re saying it’s wrong to holla at women on the street?”

I sat with him, discussing consent and how the person being called at might feel. He nodded, understanding and agreed with me that being called at could make someone scarred or feel violated, and then looked at me and asked why his father told him to do it whenever they were in the car.

It took me a while to answer, but I responded by telling him that he could make choices about whether to participate in the action or not, to which he responded that he didn’t want to, and would not do it anymore. I felt that this was the best outcome I could hope for, but it brought to my attention the fact that as anti-violence presenters, many times when we identify violence that others many not see, we challenge social norms.  But with that we also have to realize that these norms are a fundamental basis for many youth.

Pushing Back Against Normalization

Generational violence is a huge normalizing factor, and challenging a youth’s parents, or at least their teachings, can be very difficult for some kids. Do I think we need to back off? No. Do I think we need to dumb it down? No. Do we need to acknowledge that violence is a foundational part of many youths live? Absolutely.

Many of my students have seen more in their middle of high school lives than I have in 24 years. These students understand violence more than I do, my academic background, ability to quote theorists and call upon citable data may make me feel like I understand violence. But when a student asks me why they feel weird when their boyfriend grabs them or that they cry at night because of bullying at school, I am overwhelmed with my own hubris.

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Guest Post: What are YOU Doing to Prevent Suicide?

This week’s post is from a guest author!  I love highlighting the ways that amazing and inspiring young people are attempting to change their world, and this week’s post comes from one of those phenomenal young people.

Rachel O’Grady is a junior at St. Ignatius College Prep, in Chicago, Il. She plays basketball, actively participates in Model United Nations and is attempting to gain 100 service hours by next June.

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Two weeks ago, one of my friends texted me the following words: “Suicide scares the sh** out of me.” My immediate response: Well, of course it does. Taking your own life should scare you. One week later, we both received an email from our school, disclosing that one of the seniors had killed himself. Minutes after receiving the email, my friend texted me again “Remember what I said about suicide?” I went back to the email, and re-read it. It hung on my screen for nearly twenty minutes as I re-read the eerie, haunting truth, over and over again. Nearly shaking, and still crying, despite my lack of a close relationship with the student, I responded to my friend’s text: “But it’s real.”

Suicide isn’t something that teenagers can’t grasp. It’s all over the news and it’s become somewhat of a phenomenon on television and in popular culture. It’s not something foreign to many- most have heard of the “It Gets Better” videos, perhaps they know someone who has taken their own life, or maybe they’ve thought of the possibility themselves. It’s not an alien concept. It’s looked upon as cowardly, dumb, even immoral. It’s tragic, and as my friend so eloquently put, it’s scary.

Despite all of that, however, one of the leading causes of death in the modern teenage global community is suicide. Think about that for a moment. According to some sources, you are more likely to kill yourself than to be killed by another person. The leading cause of death for Lesbian and Gay teens is suicide. This birthed the infamous “It Gets Better” videos, featuring celebrities and normal folks professing to the millions that being gay is hard because of they way Lesbian and Gay teenagers are often treated – but it does get better. The verbal harassment that happens to 85% of LGBT students does end eventually. The physical abuse that happens to a whopping 40% of LGBT students does taper off.

The reality is, however, that the words stick. The bruises and scars may not fade, but this is the antithesis of a great high school or college experience. Not surprisingly, teens are still killing themselves. It obviously does not get better fast enough. How sad, desperate, or lonely do you have to be to want to take your own life? How unwanted, bullied, or depressed do you have to feel to change yours and others lives forever? Being a teen is hard. I don’t care if you’re a parent, a teacher, a mentor, anyone – you cannot deny being a teenager is tough work. We have eighty million things to worry about on any given day. Just school alone can yield a whole variety of stress, from the impossible homework to the sudden pop quiz or upcoming ominous test. On top of that, you have extra curriculars or a part time job, which include the pressure to perform every day. And then there’s college. The unavoidable, scary idea of ACT courses, graduating, leaving the place you grew up, and eventually being pushed into the “real world”, despite how prepared or not we are.

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A Need for Community – HOBY Reflections

Often when speaking with those of older generations about what I do, I get a similar reaction: hopelessness.  “Young people are so wrapped up in Facebook or texting that they don’t connect with real people!”  “The youth are so apathetic.”  “Our country, no, our world is going down the pooper when the younger generation takes over!”

Students engaging with issues of Heterosexism at HOBY IL-N

I’ll tell you what.  This weekend I saw something incredible.  At two different times, both at youth leadership conferences, one at HOBY Tennessee and one at HOBY IL North, I stopped, looked around, and realized that there were groups of incredible young people all doing the same thing.  They were sitting together, carrying on some of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and reflective conversations on race, religion, sexual orientation, sexual violence, gender, class, and ability that I have ever seen.

One of the things that I find in the work that I do is that sometimes it can be hard to have hope.  When I begin to lose hope, I try to remember something that was told to me at the White Privilege Conference, “Only those who come from incredible privilege have the ability to give up hope.”  I can’t give up hope, but sometimes I need more than simply repeating this mantra.  I need community.

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