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Safe, Seen, and Celebrated With AHA! Peace Builders: Putting Youth in Charge of Change: Published in

An incredible youth-led movement is happening in Santa Barbara, California, under the mentorship of the non-profit organization AHA! (Attitude. Harmony. Achievement).

Years ago, restorative approaches to discipline pioneer Beverly Title suggested that if schools really wanted to see a demonstrable and effective shift in campus culture, they should put youth in charge of the change. AHA! ran ith her message by beginning to train a cohort of demographically representative youth from area high schools as cultural ambassadors, charged with welcoming, protecting, and promoting the well-being of all students.

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These student leaders trained for 10 hours in deep empathy and listening skills and ways to intervene when they see hate or bullying behavior. They learned to conduct Connection Circles (also known as Listening Circles), sitting down together to check in with one another and take turns answering meaningful questions generated by the circle leader. They also learned to conduct repair conversations instead of blaming or seeking revenge, and to support peers in doing the same. Most important, they learned how to be allies to the most fragile or marginalized people in their schools and communities.

AHA! Peace Builder students also learned to use, a state-of-the art data collection application that captures, in real time, the work of students in terms of leading connection circles, participating in peace-promoting behavior, and acknowledging the pro-social behaviors of others and their efforts in promoting their own health through excellent self-care.

Since the first year of this initiative (2013-14), AHA! has trained over 300 AHA! Peace Builder youth in six area schools. These young people have conducted outreach to more than 5,000 additional peers, family members, and community members via Connection Circles, which they led during class, between classes, at AHA! Peace Builder club meetings, at home, and out in the community.

In Spring of 2017, George Soros' Open Societies Foundation and the Santa Barbara Women's Fund both invested generous grant funding in AHA! Peace Builders—particularly supporting the initiation of the program in area junior high schools. Research demonstrates that junior high school students are most likely to encounter or act out in bullying and cruel behavior, and these funders recognized the value of initiating training like this for youth age 13-14, before they enter high school. These grants also enabled AHA! to provide youth and educators at these junior high schools with Jennifer Freed's book, PeaceQ–a training manual for the AHA! Peace Builders program.

The motto of AHA! Peace Builders is peace within, peace between us, and peace among us. The students learn that all three of these pillars are essential to create positive and lasting impact for themselves, for others, and for their communities.

An AHA! alumnus had this to say about the programs we offer, via the AHA! Facebook page:

The three adjectives that best describe AHA!: growing, expressive, inspiring. AHA! has really helped me see my own light and wholeness from within and to continue to seek out individuals interested in being authentic and in relationships that grow.

If I did not have the AHA! Program, I do not know where I would be, but I know that I would be lacking in a lot of positive support and great role models that have inspired me to carry on and keep pursuing my wholeness and realize my potential, not only for myself but for my community and society as well.

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 get to know and seek knowledge about that which we do not understand and ask questions instead of pointing fingers or turning away. … From the AHA! 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.

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