Adolescents are a mirror to what the larger society is modeling for them. Each one of us is in a different stage of self-awareness and with that our perceptions of ourselves in the world are just as varied. It’s plausible to say that bullies are working things out that are just as valid as any do-gooder is. One could say it’s part of the same progression. Nicole Jon Sievers, founder of non-profit Stand For Courage, an anti-bullying organization points out that we’ve all been the victim, the bystander, and the bully. It’s time to stop targeting individuals as these situations arise, and do something to change the culture that is showing our kids that this behavior is okay.
There are pockets of schools in American society in which we experience cultures of compassion at play. In smaller, specialized academic environments one can observe adolescents behaving respectfully toward each other, and the leadership matches certain stated values: that each person is an important part of their community. Members are given thoughtful guidance to ensure they know to utilize the strengths of their character and talents for the higher good. These fortunate students are guided in ways that teach them how much they matter and where their power lies.
We don’t observe outright bullying in those cultures. Negativity in the social sense is simply not allowed to progress, because positive leadership skills are cultivated instead. Students are constantly being redirected to support one another and work through issues as are the faculty and staff.
This is not the case for larger schools, where resources are thin and teachers are exhausted. As a result, a culture where bullying is commonplace can arise very quickly, simply because individual students don’t have a sense of duty toward their classmates. The Seattle-based nonprofit Stand For Courage (SFC) is looking to change the culture of American schools with the idea of nurturing a compassionate culture among those young people who would be “bystanders” in a bullying situation.
Stand For Courage is offering a fresh approach to social accountability, and we need it
Seattle resident and adolescent psychology author Nicole Jon Sievers decided to take action against bullying in schools. She started SFC with an approach much different than what we’ve seen taking place in schools by targeting the bystanders of bullying incidents rather than the bully or the bully’s victim. Schools are asked to create a culture of bystander activism on behalf of the victim. Bystanders are also taught that bullies are in a sense also victims.
The beauty of the project is that in its approach it teaches adolescents how to participate in a functional community. This is an invaluable life skill that in turn benefits the greater society as kids learn how to align their values with right action.
We can see in the #metoo movement it took actual Me-Tooism for things to start changing for women experiencing harassment in the workplace. Many of us can say that we spent too much of our lives enduring at least low-grade harassment if not full on sexual assault while our peers did nothing but discourage us from taking action. Why? The simple answer is that it is threatening or burdensome for one person to take on the kind of aggressive retaliation that would likely be attracted by such action.
The #metoo movement is succeeding because individuals have the protection of the group and celebrity power. In schools, the kids with popularity hold the same power and can be activated to offer protection to victims of bullies, as well as set examples of compassionate leadership.
Sievers’ Message of Personal Power
In talking with Nicole, one finds the kind of passion and gentleness that comes from someone who has spent a lot of time reflecting on issues of power and compassion. She could be labeled a “bleeding heart” type in one sense, but conversely, she sees the truth in people. The darker aspects of humans don’t seem to pull her out of her position of compassion. On that, she seems unflappable. To see the worst truth in a person and love anyway…isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing?
If we’re not looking to manipulate and dominate one another, we ought to define what we are to do instead. Sievers has some answers.
“Perception is so powerful, delicate and most often incomplete, which is why kindness is an essential lens to ensure arrival at a result our future self will appreciate,” Sievers says. “We’ve each been variations of all of it: a bully, the target of a bully, a bystander just grateful it’s not us in the heat, or a bystander who summons the courage to say: not funny, stop, enough. We can all do better for ourselves and by one another, and the best news is that—whatever happened yesterday—today you can make a new and generous choice. It’s time to heal and time to be compassionate in this world. We each have more power to support one another than we know.”
Though Sievers brings years of study and thinking to the project, the spark to begin Stand for Courage came from a specific incident from—what probably comes as no surprise—an example of bullying on social media.
“A mother with three daughters handed me printed pages from a Facebook thread,” Sievers explains. “Cruel posts harassing a female high school student for having sex. Words shaming her and insulting her body.’”
“As I read through, I kept thinking about the fact that the youth who most need to hear the anti-bullying message are those whose attention is the most challenging to attract. I thought about how one’s bullied brain stumbles neurologically. And my perspective backed up to consider the bystander and the bully all with neurological stress—needless suffering all around! I reluctantly kept reading. The collective verbal assault intensified with each post. It was harrowing and painful to absorb.”
“Sixty-four posts in, and there is Jenna,” says Sievers, “with a profile picture in her cheerleading outfit. Jenna wrote: ‘Stop! Who raised you? Her sexuality is none of your business. If you don’t all stop immediately—I’m going to de-friend every single one of you!’”
“A boy chimed in, ‘If I was that ugly I’d kill myself.’ Jenna texted back ‘Enough.’”
“Tears began pouring down my cheeks,” says Sievers. “It wasn’t a feeling—it was a knowing: The path forward. Jenna, the courageous bystander is the answer.” Stand For Courage ignited.
Creating a Culture of Compassion
Studies tell us that 90 percent of teens bully for one reason: peer attention. (The same might prove true of adults.) When we know what incentivizes a behavior, we can reverse the incentive and a shift in behavior will follow.
“We need to empower bystanders to recognize bullying and step into motion as a reflex,” Sievers states. “We need to celebrate bystanders caught, ‘doing the right thing.’”
Taking the initiative to do the right thing is much more difficult than most people will admit, no matter the scale of the problem. How many times have we known at a deep level that something is wrong and needs correcting? We can easily dismiss the feeling for the sake of not wanting to rock the boat—or worse, we want to personally avoid the consequences of acting. Stepping up can draw a damaging amount of attention to ourselves, and we may not even anticipate the emotional trauma it can bring. This sense of powerlessness often gets fed by some keyboard activism on social media which can ironically manifest in a display that looks and feels like bullying to those being addressed.
We seem to know inherently that there is something wrong with acting on our desire to dominate others, and yet we also have entrenched Social Darwinism. In a sense, both the bully and the bully’s victim are carrying around similar baggage, and these dynamics serve as a mirror to a larger issue. Collectively we might just have the power to set an example of other possible ways to cope with this baggage.
Stand for Courage is about changing the paradigm, that kindness should dominate and be the vehicle to make that shift. We should not be okay with simply blending into the background as something terribly wrong goes on around us. In our often buried selves, we know better. SFC offers a solution that could just be revolutionary.
Fundraising with Courtney Love
An interesting detail about Nicole Jon Sievers is that Courtney Love happens to be her sister, and the two have combined efforts in support of SFC. Courtney Love will be selling special designer clothing items and donating a portion to the cause. The Courtney Love Closet Sale kicked off on Heroine this Thursday, December 6, 2018, at 12 noon EST. Read more about it here.