In 1999, Jennifer Freed, Ph.D. and Rendy Freedman, MFT co-founded AHA! (Attitude, Harmony, Achievement) in response to the Columbine High School massacre. Jennifer and Rendy both have backgrounds as educators, mediators, and psychotherapists and believed that in addition to academics, youth needed a curriculum to develop healthy relating skills and social and emotional skills, to navigate the storms of adolescence.
Violence can only be abated if people develop strong empathy skills and mental health is prioritized beginning in childhood. AHA! has been reaching thousands of youth since 1999 in and out of school, and credits much of its success to the commitment to empower youth to transform their own schools and communities with creative expression, celebration of diversity, and social and emotional leadership skills.
Most of AHA!’s highly trained staff have post graduate degrees and community organizing experience. We have also cultivated a work culture which emphasizes empathy, reciprocity, wellness, and disciplined autonomy. In 2013, Dr. Beverly Title trained us in restorative approaches, and she inspired us to start a program which enrolled youth in transforming their own schools and cultures.
That is how our flagship program, Peace Builders came into existence. It was designed for teens in 2014, along with a web application called PEACEQ (www.peaceq.org). Since then, we have trained over 400 students and they have reached an additional 10,000 others through student-led connection circles. PEACEQ is the capacity to have peace within, peace with others, and facilitate peace in your community. Our book, PeaceQ will be released in the fall of 2016, enabling individuals and groups to create their own programs.
Current statistics find that one in three U.S. students report having been bullied on campus; CDC research found that almost 20% of high school students had been bullied in the past year. Over half of bullying situations (57%) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the victim. AHA!’s Peace Builders’ aim is to interconnect students through student-initiated, student-led Connection Circles, where open sharing and active listening forge healthy connections across lines of clique, color and socioeconomic status. Making those connections is the most effective way of creating positive alliances between students. They then are more likely to support and protect one another against bullying behavior.
We recruit teens from three separate high school campuses that were reflective of the demographics of the campus and have an active interest in creating a peaceful and inclusive campus culture. We reached these teens through publicized assemblies for students who were interested and then cull the 150 participating teens from their passion for the project and their follow through with getting the application and paperwork in.