"Who all wanted to be here today?" asks a voice from the front of the auditorium. A few meek hands rise slowly into the air.
"Okay. Who here was forced to come?" A nervous silence, and then dozens of hands shoot up and giggles waft through the room.
"That's what we're here to work on."
Each year, schools and youth groups across the country hold countless assemblies and conferences in attempts to combat our ever-present problem with bullying. These meetings generally begin with a monotone lecture from an old man in a suit and end with hundreds of bored teenagers checking Facebook on their iPhones.
Last Friday, a new kind of bullying prevention conference was born at the Athenaeum
Dubbed "Make Some Noise! Upstanders Unite Against Bullying," the conference aimed to help teenagers connect and discover ways to combat bullying in their own lives.
"These kids already know the right thing to do. We hope to help build the courage for them to do it," said John McShane, Director of Community Programs at the Peace Learning Center
. "By the end of this, we want to release 150 upstanders into the community."
According to McShane, an "upstander" is anyone who stands up for themselves and for others, refusing to tolerate bullying and peer mistreatment.
The free event, conceived only a few weeks prior, saw Indiana's Division of Mental Health and Addiction
(DMHA) reaching out to the PLC in order to create a conference that invites teenagers to share their thoughts and solutions on bullying in their own lives. The PLC's mission to promote a peaceful community shows in this event and countless prior, as they provide services teaching conflict resolution throughout all facets of the community.
"The DMHA acted as sponsor, and we are more of the facilitators," clarified McShane.
The event began as a customary assembly, with various speakers explaining the bullying problem in today's youth and hoping to inspire the teenagers to take charge. This, however, is when the traditional conference took a nontraditional turn.
An interactive survey with real time results persuaded the teenagers to answer various questions about the bullying they witness in daily life.
"It's called social norming," explained Kristina Hulvershorn, Youth Programs
Director at the PLC. "Based on the survey, the vast majority see it happening everyday and the vast majority think it's wrong."
By showing the results to the participants, Hulvershorn hoped to create an understanding and camaraderie, encouraging them to make a difference.
The interactive conference continued with Claude McNeal, who came up to the podium to introduce "ACT Out
," an educational theatre program. The structured improvisation allowed audience members to fix the problems that the actors performed in front of them.
The scenes represented various realistic situations that occur in every circle. At the beginning, the teenagers laughed and hollered at derogatory remarks and hurtful jokes. However, once it came time for them to remedy the situation, they transformed.
One man raised his hand, offering his definition of a "true friend" in contrast to the bullies in front of him. When he finished, the teenagers around the room unexpectedly applauded. In that moment, the event changed from something kids were "forced" to attend to something truly enlightening, where participants came together to discuss real world problems.
After the large group assembly, participants were able to attend breakout sessions in which they could address bullying and peer mistreatment in their own ways. Sessions dealt with the problem through music, spoken word, acting, and even button making, giving participants the opportunity to connect with each other in ways they actually wanted to. They created a forum where the young people were able to tell their stories.
The event was a major success, with participants signing up from across the city. The summit brought in an array of groups and individuals, from The Girl Scouts
to 100 Black Men
"We had to close registration," said Tiffany Tibbot, Youth Development Facilitator at the PLC. "It was capped at 150 kids, ages 12 to 19."
Bullying is not a new phenomenon, but it has changed. Kids can't run home to hide from the big neighborhood bully. With the dawning of new technology and cyber-bullying
, it has become harder to find a safe place, an escape. This new conference strove to demonstrate that the only way to stop the problem is for the young people themselves to lead the conversation against bullying.
"We want to create a community in which everyone is welcome and no one is alone," said McShane. "This is just the beginning of the conversation."