The Care Bear Revolution: Get Empathy– the student anti-bullying and leadership program

December 31st, 2014

A few years ago, I was asked one day by the director of a prominent non-profit in the area, ”With a little grant money and a powerful position, what would you do to stop bullying?” Having been a middle school student I can testify to being bullied. I remembered being 13 and literally sick with anxiety that was like a tight ball in my stomach. On one occasion I vomited before I had to go to school knowing I would be bullied at gym class. What would I do now that I am an adult?
My answer to the problem of bullying is the same as it is to most problems: we can’t change things by ourselves, we need to organize our community. Solutions happen when we get lots of agitated people together. Generally the only times in horror movies when the vampires or evil villains are scared is when many people are outside the castle with pitchforks and torches.

Community organizing is an amazing and somewhat magical skill. Although I did not know it back then, organizing a tight community of misfits when I was 14 is the magic that really saved my life. When I was first being trained to be a community organizer in my 20’s, I was awed to witness my mentor knocking door-to-door, recruiting people to come to a meeting. It was amazing that in a month you could get 20 total strangers from the same poor neighborhood or workplace to show up to a church basement on a weeknight, and really have some of the first conversations that anyone had ever had in their lives about politics or just share how hard it was to be a working mom with 3 kids.

Within an hour, my mentor would go from having a door slammed in her face, to smooth talking herself into the living room, to having some of the most intense emotional conversations as we were all tearing up, later leaving with a hug and a commitment to show up to the next meeting. She was like a Jedi knight, or, as I like to say, she had magical Care Bear Powers.

Growing up in the 80’s, I loved the Star Wars movies and the mystical, zen-like power of the Jedi knights. As I grew up, I turned to less violent models of power that are rooted in love. In the Christian mystical tradition, saints like Francis of Assisi have the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the Buddhist tradition Bodhisattvas have metta power. As I have spent more time in monasteries in the Christian tradition, my faith and belief in this power has grown, as well as my desire to develop and use it. My contemplative tradition calls it the fruits and gifts of the spirit and speaks of it as a divine mystery. I wanted to share this concept with young people, but I needed something that could be explained more simply. I thought of the Care Bears and the love energy they shoot out of their lower bellies (the mystical center of the energy system in the eastern tradition) that seems to heal and resolve every conflict.

So, using this metaphor, could we use community-organizing technology to create one big unified care bear community? I was not the first one to have a similar idea. Marshall Ganz is a famous organizer from the United Farm Workers who trained under Cesar Chavez and is now a Harvard professor. In 2008, he developed an historic plan to teach 45,000 volunteers some of the basics of the care bear power of community organizing as part of the Obama Campaign. Many political experts believe that this was one of the key factors that allowed them to mobilize more people to canvass, volunteer, and donate than any previous campaign in the nation’s history. The mass community organizing training done at 2-day boot camps recruited and formed people into teams armed with the emotional power of their own personal narratives.

I asked, could something similar to “camp Obama” be used to train high school leaders and misfits in the secrets of care bear power? After recruiting dozens and dozens high school leaders and training them to be facilitators for our day long training— partnering with a great youth group called, Lifeworks– 6 schools sent around 2 hundred students to our day long training at USC. Once we started the training in the auditorium with hundreds of student leaders, I felt the energy in the room. I knew we were onto something magical. Ten minutes before the training, one of the teachers asked me how long the training was going to be and how long we were going to talk. I said 7 hours and that as individuals we would talk for 30 minutes here or there. “There’s no way you are going to get their attention for that long,” she said with apprehension.

But once we started to talk, you could hear a pin drop. The students love personal narrative. In fact, that is one of the only things that holds all their attention—when they can emotionally connect with the personal narrative. After we set up the container of support, and ground rules of empathy and respect–they hear 5 or 6 narratives from experienced trainers like Cedar, Jess, our trained student leaders, and myself. Then we teach them the basics to construct their own narrative. We break them up into small groups to practice. Telling stories acts as a sort of Care Bear stare, similar to the care bears shining from their bellies. You can feel the care and love pouring into the room. A lot of crying and bonding ensues.

Then we get everyone together to debrief. After asking the students what that felt like, we received half a dozen emotional testimonials on how awesome it was to hear people’s stories. Just in my small group, we held space for a student traumatized from his dad being deported, someone who had attempted suicide, and someone who had lost a parent. Every student had a deep struggle.

I had written a set of leading questions that I thought I already knew the answers to—and from the front, with the loud mic, I would ask the crowd to yell the answers. Where else is a place you can share your story? Who else is someone you trust? I thought they had probably had one or two people that they had shared their stories of their struggles with. We wanted to brainstorm what supports they had already, write them up on the board—a teacher, a parent, a friend, etc. Most of the crowd yelled back to my question— nowhere!!!! No one!! This was the first time many had shared their story, and many felt there was nowhere to go. When I heard these responses from the crowd, it was a shock for me. I took a deep pause and a deep breathe as I teared up in front of the room. It is just so sad. I am so sorry.
We do hours of more sharing and exercises where students learn to empathize with other students. At the end of the day, we opened the mic for students to share whatever they wanted; many of the students cried with gratitude. So many of the same phrases were said over and over again in their testimonials: “I never knew everyone was going through so many struggles;” “I thought I knew these people, but I did not know them at all;” “I feel so close to everyone.” It is sappy, but the Care Bear energy bomb had exploded, and with it all the warring clichés of high school had a temporary truce. A quarter of the students raised their hands to join groups, and helps organize another group, and deliver love bombs to the next group. Get Empathy was a growing group of converted high schoolers who were running groups and speaking about the program. A few schools in Cape Cod, MA and in Santa Monica, CA took up the program in addition to the few schools in LAUSD.

With the lost of some donors, and a grant, we had to scale back our Get Empathy plan and vision. But this yeat, with a commitment from a new donor, Relational Center is relaunching Get Empathy, so it can go viral– so it can spread throughout the country. I will be working with my training partner Carlos Saavedra, and my old friend Cedar Landsman in the next year to expand and strengthen Get Empathy.

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