A group of teenagers sits in a circle. Typical teenagers, they span the spectrum of race and ethnicity, ages and economic groups, dress and appearance. They are white, brown, black, and Asian; dressed in designer fashions, folded into slouchy sweats; straight, gay, closeted; distracted, focused; trying to stay off drugs, grieving, animated, fighting their parents, failing school, high-achieving, wishing they were somewhere else, excited that they’re here because they’ve been looking forward to group all week.
Among them sit three adults. These are facilitators, and they’re guiding the teens through a process used to open the meetings for which this group convenes once a week. The facilitators are also of various colors and walks of life. One is Hispanic, shaved bald, and covered with tattoos. Another is a young white woman with long brown hair and kind eyes. The third is a young Jewish man with a ready smile and an affectionate manner. One has been in prison. Another is gay, and another is feeling anxious about some difficulties in life outside of group. All have many years’ experience working with youth. Two are licensed therapists.
The activity under way is called “Thorns and Roses.” Each participant, including the facilitators, shares a “thorn” – something that isn’t going well or is causing problems in their lives – and a “rose” – something positive for which they’re grateful. There’s no crosstalk, no feedback; only honest sharing. Participants can also choose not to share.
This activity serves many purposes. It gives everyone a chance to check in and let the group know what’s up for them that day. It helps the facilitators know whether anyone is in crisis and in need of extra support. It also helps them gauge where the group will go from here: along the planned route of the day’s curriculum, or off in a new direction, responsive to the needs of the group.
Perhaps the first thing an onlooker might notice about this gathering of teens and adults is its mutuality: the adults are not acting as authority figures or disciplinarians. When a teen is disruptive, or talks out of turn, the facilitators deftly turn the incident into a teaching moment, helping participants honor the flow of the group instead of giving in to their urge to disrupt.
When everyone has had a chance to share a thorn and a rose, facilitators get up and move the group into active games, which produce a great deal of laughter and help the kids drop into their bodies. Fifteen minutes later, the group settles down again for a brief discussion of the day’s topic: bullying. One facilitator takes the lead and the rest seamlessly contribute. After this introduction, the group breaks into smaller groups, each led by a facilitator, for deeper sharing about each participant’s experience of bullying.
These teens are part of AHA!, a program created by Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freedman in 1999, soon after the Columbine shootings. The after-school group is one of eight offered every week to teens in our community, free of charge. We also work with over 1500 teens each year within schools in the Santa Barbara area.
Teens say that “School is a battleground,” “Teachers don’t listen to us,” “I hate sitting all day; it’s unnatural,” “Everyone tries to look good and no one is real,” “Only grades and sports matter,” “All our parents care about is how well we do on tests,” and “I’d rather die than sit through another boring lecture.”
So many teens are disconnected from school—and from life—because it appears that no one cares about them, about who they are and how they feel—issues that are paramount for developing teens. School, in particular, is perceived as a competitive battleground, where those who are “different” are targeted for abuse. This atmosphere raises the anxiety meter in all teens, not just the unlucky victims, because everyone understands that, with one slip-up, they could be next.
AHA! enters this environment with a highly participatory and playful curriculum that emphasizes empathy, respect, inclusivity, courage, and social and emotional intelligence. By offering this curriculum to the freshman class at local high schools, we are creating a growing cadre of students who see through the fear, posturing and manipulation that is expressed as bullying. Together with them we are changing the school environment. Since beginning our work on local campuses, disciplinary actions are down and test scores are up—because people learn better in an environment where they can relax and be themselves than in an environment where they’re constantly fearful of making a mistake.
These are not just isolated results. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) reports that this is what to expect from social and emotional learning programs:
Social and emotional learning is one of the most important strategies available to promote student success and effective school reform. Extensive evaluations have found that social and emotional learning enhances academic achievement, helps students develop self-management and self-control, improves relationships at all levels of the school-community, reduces conflict among students, improves teachers’ classroom management, and helps young people to be healthier and more successful in school and life.
In the AHA! after-school program, we have an opportunity to offer this curriculum in greater depth—often presenting it as a “Guys and Girls Relationship Group,” or a “Dream Group,” or “Sing It Out,” a group that empowers teens to connect powerfully with the emotion of a song—and perform it live in a rollicking, foot-stomping show at a local music club. This year, we even convinced our mayor to take the stage and belt a tune.
One teen, we’ll call him “Terrence,” joined the AHA! after-school program when his sister fell into a coma from a drug overdose. He was a 15-year-old self-identified gay man who had experienced constant hazing and prejudice in school.
In AHA!, he found his niche; he was welcomed with loving interest. He learned to deal with his pain and the hazing; he was even chosen as a guest speaker on prejudice at a local youth summit. He found that in AHA!, he could be himself without being judged, and he could make friends based on mutual interest and admiration, rather than because of his sexual orientation.
“Before AHA! I would never have been friends with a gay person, and now I am,” is a comment we hear from many heterosexual teen participants.
Terrence went on weekend AHA! trips, completed AHA!’s leadership training, and is now more caring and confident in all he does as a result of experiencing a community where his soul mattered more than his preferences.
Another teen, “Jewel,” a beautiful and strong African-American girl, moved to Santa Barbara from San Jose where she had been part of a violent criminal gang and a family of heroin addicts. Her grandmother insisted she come to AHA! and that she attend school even though she had been flunking out. Within one month of participating in AHA! after-school four days a week, Jewel said, “I don’t know what y’all are doing here, but the first time in my life I feel this love thing and I like it.” Two years and hundreds of AHA! participation hours later, Jewel became the first person in her family lineage to graduate from high school. Her mom, strung out heroin, approached us at graduation and sobbed, “Bless you, bless you for helping my child. I could never do it.” Jewel now goes to college in Santa Barbara and continues her involvement with AHA! by helping to lead the alumni group.
Debra is a 14-year -old daughter of a celebrity family in Santa Barbara. Although she is white and highly privileged, that did not save her from relentless bullying. Girls treated with her constant derision and cruelty and would actually get up and leave the table if she sat with them. AHA! came into her school by request and supported Debra and her peers in changing the school culture. Teachers and students were trained to intervene when they witnessed any cruelty, and Debra became a leader of the new paradigm. She now enjoys the pride of bringing the AHA! program to her school and standing up for changing the world, one teen at a time.
A Mexican-American teen wrote this on AHA!’s Facebook page:
“The AHA! program helps prevent hatred, prejudice, and bullying by encouraging tolerance, understanding, and compassion. By being part of a tight-knit community with Mexicans, gangsters, preps, rich kids, gay kids, potheads, and straight edges, we were able to see the unity in all of our diversity and really appreciate a wider array of human beings. Each one of us brought something unique and special to the group, and I left feeling like I knew people on a deeper level from all walks of life, which certainly makes it difficult to generalize or stereotype an individual based on their outward appearance or lifestyle choices. I grew to tolerate, appreciate, and embrace individuals from different groups, which makes it nearly impossible to hate others, or bully or hold prejudice against groups or individuals. What it encouraged was careful curiosity and a desire to seek knowledge about that which we do not understand and ask questions instead of pointing fingers or turning away…From the staff, I received some of the parenting, encouragement, and love that I so lacked from family life and I was able to take these healthy frameworks for positive relationships and run with them and continue to use them as models to this day.”
By changing the frame of social interaction from one of competition to one of community, teens find that the whole world looks different. By creating a perspective wherein every voice is valued and every person carries a gift, instead of a grudge or a wound, parents and educators find that teens are exceptionally open, loving, caring, and motivated to learn. Through the lens that every teen is a pearl in a strand of community, AHA! nurtures the possibilities for every student to shine. Instead of accepting the cliques and indifference of a school of assorted strangers, we emphasize sharing oneself so that one’s allies can find you, and we teach practices that counter hate and prejudice and empower strong-spirited youth to take a stand for all people on campus to be safe.
This isn’t to say we don’t run into trouble, sometimes heaps of trouble. Youth, like adults, make mistakes—often careless, impulsive mistakes. We use each of these instances to evaluate what harm has been done, to whom, and how does it need to be repaired so all parties are satisfied and returned to community with love and dignity. The teen years are purposefully years of experimentation, of finding and testing boundaries. Youth need elders and mentors who are authentic and brave enough to be clear stewards without being tyrants. AHA! reassures youth that when they go astray they can find meaningful ways to reintegrate into community and become who they dream of becoming.
Isn’t that what all of us secretly yearn for?
Befriending the Stranger
How can I possibly judge you
when I have yet to taste your past,
swallow your experiences whole?
What I call strange you may call Home
What you call strange I may call Self
Are you from “elsewhere”?
I am too, to you
Unfamiliar — scary
Strange can be an invitation if you are willing
Everything unknown– potentially you
That first step past ignorance, terrifying or electrifying
Realizing the skin is just wrapping
The point of view is personal landscape
Moving beyond assumptions
Claiming all as me
Becoming an ally
Befriending the Stranger
– Jennifer Freed