Students Address Racial Cliques at National PTA Youth Leadership Summit

Reposted from the Not In Our Town Blog

Student presentation on addressing racial cliques in high school

By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

The National PTA Youth Leadership Summit in Cincinnati, OH was an incubator for student-led innovative ideas that address problems on our school campuses. Not In Our School (NIOS) was proud to present at the summit in June and witness how students quickly learned leadership skills and applied them to addressing bullying as well as tackling school cliques and divisions based on race.
At the summit, students participated in simulations that helped bring these solutions to the fore. One simulation was as follows:
Smith High School has always had a problem with cliques. Physical fights, verbal abuse, and damage to personal property has become the norm. School staff is trying to mitigate the problem with suspensions and mediations, but nothing they do seems to help. Recently, a student at SHS lost their life to this violence, and that is why they have decided to move into action. 
One group decided to bring the students closer together so that they can learn to understand each others’ lives in order to increase empathy and decrease bullying at their school. Their creative solution included:
  • Bringing a group of students staff and parents together in a leadership team to design an ongoing campaign
  • A campaign launch with a motivational speaker, followed by parent meetings, student assemblies and small group dialogues and team-building to bring students of different ethnic groups together
  • A mural project so that students could experience a meaningful project together.
The meetings, they agreed, should continue until the problem was solved.
She'Neka Williams, Student Leader PTSAStudent leader She’Neka Williams, a rising junior at Grimsley Senior High School in Greensboro, NIC, was a key member of the team. She became involved with the Aycock Middle School PTSA when she became student body president and also helped with the Jones Elementary PTSA with her mother, an active member of boths PTSAs.
Today, She’Neka shares their great work at addressing cliques, including a Powerpoint presentation and a series of short videos shot with their cellphones that tell the story of change in this simulation. She’Neka created these materials along with Naazam Basir, Alex Saleh, Meagan Gardner, Jacqueline Cason, Victoria Garriques and Aliyah LeBoeuf.

Video Presentation: Smith High School Simulation About Breaking Down Cliques and Bridging Racial Divisions

1. Two cliques are separated because of race. As they walk past each other to go to class, they begin getting violent and very loud. Watch video.

2. This issue gets to the principal and she has a meeting with all of the girls. The principal plans numerous things to try to help resolve this form of bullying. Watch video.
3. The principal decides to invite a guest speaker, who encourages the girls to make a change. Watch video.

4. Another idea the principal had was to have the students make a mural which helped everyone get along. Watch video.

5. The next day at school the students see each other and end up walking to class together. Watch video.
She’Neka reflected on her experience, “I plan to share this PowerPoint and videos with as many schools in my city as possible because I believe it is a very efficient way to prevent bullying. This experience impacted me in such a great way. I have often been told that I have a very creative mindset and that I have many leadership qualities and by putting my thoughts together, along with my team, we were able to create a wonderful presentation. I now feel very comfortable sharing my ideas and putting them to use. I am very excited that I am receiving the opportunity to share the presentation that I was able to present at the National Convention.”
Let Not In Our School know how you are breaking up cliques and bridging racial divisions in your school or community at the NIOS Facebook page.
Create a campaign on your campus with the Not In Our School Quick Start Guide and check out great resources from the National PTA’s Connect for Respect program.

Snowflakes for Newtown: A Case for Empathy

BeckiYou could hardly blame me for thinking of the past two years as proof that humanity is doomed and deserves it. That’s what I told myself as I thought back on some of the horrors of recent months: schoolchildren massacred in Newtown, Connecticut. Movie watchers mowed down in Aurora, Colorado. Sikh worshipers murdered in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Gang rapes in broad daylight. Not to mention that after the bombings in Boston, people are afraid to go out to cheer for a marathon. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I’ve always been active in the cause of human progress. Over the decades I was part of two anti-war movements: to end the War in Viet Nam, and to prevent intervention in Central America. I was also part of the first anti-rape movement. And now I work as the Director of the Not In Our School program at Not In Our Town, an organization that spawned a movement to end hate, intolerance, and bullying.

Ending hate, intolerance, and bullying — these are monumental tasks!

In light of all the bad news I was hearing on a daily basis, I needed to see some progress for the human race. I needed to hear some good news, though I doubted I would. But to my surprise, and maybe to yours, I did!

After the Sandy Hook shootings, the National Parent and Teachers Association made a public appeal for paper snowflakes to cheer the students when they returned to school. The response was a literal blizzard from across the world. That little act of empathy got me thinking differently about things.

Then I read in the British newspaper The Spectator that 2012 was possibly the best year ever in human history. Why would they say that? The article said that 2012 saw fewer deaths from war, disease, and hunger than any previous year since we started to keep such statistics. That astonishing report certainly gave me pause and made me look deeper.

Here are some surprising facts I discovered:

  • War: The Oslo Peace Research Center reported fewer war deaths in 2012 than at any time during the last century. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, backs this up. Tracking the history of war, it shows that violence actually has declined dramatically, making today’s world the safest in history.
  • Poverty: In 1990, the United Nations set “Millennium goals” to cut world poverty in half by 2015. Did you know that we met that goal in 2008?

Disease: Deaths from lung cancer and breast cancer were down by one-third in the last 40 years, and life expectancy is up across the globe.

  • Rape: The U.S. Justice Department has reported that rapes have plunged 85% since 1970, which was when I became involved with others in starting a rape crisis center, one of many that sprang up in that decade. In Better Angels, Pinker points out that rape has long been considered a standard feature of war and conquest. Now concern about ending rape has become international, as thousands of women and men protest rape in the U.S. military, brutal rapes in the Congo, and recent gang rapes in Delhi, to name just a few examples.

What is making the difference?

One factor is the human capacity for empathy.  Economist Jeremy Rifkin explored this theme in a 2010 TED (Technology, Education, Design) talk. “To empathize is to civilize,” said Rifkin.

He described us humans as being biologically programmed for empathy. Empathy has evolved through different stages in history, each time extending a bit more as humans organized themselves as clans, city-states, nations, and now globally. And while the planet has seen violence and bloodshed each step of the way, over the years, we have stretched our empathy to more and more people as we have reached beyond the boundaries of blood ties, religion, nation, and ethnic group. There is no questions that people are still people fighting for clans, land, and national sovereignty today. Now, however, as our connections become more and more global, we continue to embrace others who are different from ourselves. We are even extending empathy to the entire planet, not only to people, but also to the natural world. This capacity to be both globally empathic and more global in our thinking is spurring a growing number of world citizens to also expand their horizons. I agree with Rifkin that global empathy is ultimately is the hope for the future of humanity.

This is progress!

So now, when I look back at the horrific events of the past two years, that’s not all I see. I see progress in the making.

I see people rising up in empathy against small and large acts of violence, hate, and bigotry, and in favor of kindness and acceptance. People around the world responded to support the Sikh community after the massacre in Oak Creek. People in towns and in schools across the world are taking a stand against bullying and are reaching out to those who are excluded, now that millions have viewed the movie Bully. The tide of US public opinion has turned in support of gay marriage, as an important step toward social equality. Performer and anti-rape activist Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising, mobilized of people across the globe to dance on Valentine’s Day, to end violence against women.

Small things matter too:  Richard, the owner of a Virginia auto-body shop, fixed a car for free for a college student that had anti-gay slurs keyed into it. Grace, a 13-year-old Canadian girl with Asperger’s syndrome who had been bullied for years, started a bullying prevention effort at her school. John, a Special Olympian, sent a letter of protest when President Obama was called a “retard,” explaining why we should not use that word and thousands supported him. These are just a few examples I know of. You must know of many too.

We still have a lot to do to end raw violence, all types of rape and also its subtler forms, such as when violence turns inward as the result of depression or other mental health conditions.

I see all this evidence of progress as an invitation to expand our efforts to extend empathy across the globe. If you have been discouraged by the daily news reports of hate or violence, know that your efforts will eventually bear fruit. Join with Not In our Town to bring your community together to end bullying and create inclusive communities. Work to end income inequality. Work to get assault weapons banned and off the streets. Extend empathy to our planet and turn the tide of climate change. Work in your community to make everyone feel safe and included.

Or do what you are already doing, whether it is seeking better care for the elderly, running a marathon to raise funds for cancer research, or teaching a child to read.

I refuse to see only the bad news. I know from my own experience that when people get together to help one another, accept one another, learn from one another, they create a force that is stronger than violence and hatred.

In their “snowflake” appeal for Newtown, the National PTA received enough snowflakes to cover the entire town.  It’s all our actions together that will move us toward the “empathic civilization” in a global blizzard of “metaphorical” snowflakes.

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed. D. is currently the director of Not In Our School (NIOS). She has spoken on the subject of how to combat bullying at conferences, schools, and universities across the United States. Becki’s new book,“Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn,” co-authored with Dr. Dorothy Steele was published by Corwin Press. Prior to working at The WorkingGroup, she spent over 35 years in public education in California.

Youth Leaders Spread NIOS Message to PTAs Nationwide

Reposted from the Not In Our Town Blog

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (center) with youth presenters and Becki Cohn-Vargas (far right)

Youth leadership is a key part of Not In Our School anti-bullying initiatives, an aspect of our work that is showcased in our films and impressed the National PTA, who invited us to share promising practices for standing up to bullying at their National Youth Leadership Summit in June. We invited two Ohio students who appeared in our films to join us at the summit in Cincinnati.

Alana Garrett is a former high school student who led a student mentoring program in a local elementary school in an East Cleveland, OH inner city school district. Shawyawn Sekhavat is a student from Pepper Pike, OH who led a mapping activity at his school, which helped him gain confidence to speak up and stop bullying.

Both had been filmed in 2009 and I had never met them, nor did I know if I would even find them. The good news is that I found both Alana, a sociology major at Baldwin Wallace University, and Shawyawn, studying pre-med at Ohio University, and both were very enthusiastic about participating.

The Town Hall

The summit was part of the National PTA Annual Conference, which began with the filming of a Discovery Town Hall about bullying, the second of a four-part series that will be posted on the Discovery Channel Website.

The Town Hall featured a panel with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Kari Byron, co-host of MythBusters, together with Alana, Shawyawn, youth leader Tharon Trujillo from California, and Brent Burnham, a school counselor from Utah. Kari Byron outlined some of the myths of bullying and the youth shared their perspectives.

The final word was offered to Secretary Duncan, who turned and passed the opportunity to Alana. She made an eloquent plea to not approach bullying from a legalistic or punitive perspective, which would lead to stigmatizing and labeling students. Zero tolerance policies will not end bullying, she explained, but would instead lead to negative consequences particularly for black and brown students. She called for an approach that helps students learn from their mistakes and promotes love and creates empathy.

The Summit

Youth participants came from many states and varied backgrounds. During the four-day summit, they heard a motivational speaker, and engaged in leadership skill-building. As part of the Summit, we conducted a workshop where attendees  viewed Alana and Shawyawn on film, interacted with them in person, and learned about the activities and impact of NIOS campaigns.

The summit attendees worked in small groups to design and present a model anti-bullying campaign for their schools. It was inspiring to see how, in such a short time, the youth were able to absorb and innovate, drawing from what they experienced. A team of judges selected the top two groups to present to the National PTA Board.

Ideas from all the youth presentations will be used to develop models and planning guides that will be shared with PTAs across the country, who can move them into action.

It was an honor for NIOS to participate in this effort that highlighted our principles of student-led initiatives working with the whole community to address both bullying and intolerance in sustained efforts. It was also wonderful to meet Alana and Shawyawn who are both continuing to grow as individuals and leaders, committed to making the world a safer and better place.


Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed. D. is currently the director of Not In Our School (NIOS). She has spoken on the subject of how to combat bullying at conferences, schools, and universities across the United States. Becki’s new book,“Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn,” co-authored with Dr. Dorothy Steele was published by Corwin Press. Prior to working at The WorkingGroup, she spent over 35 years in public education in California.