Community-Building in Our Schools and Beyond: A Strategy for Safety

Kate King on April 10, 2018

By Meagan Picard, Principal, The Athena Group

Our thoughts, like many others’, are currently fixated on all those affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Likewise, our thoughts are with families and communities all around this country who are afraid that they may be next.

Photo by Celia Ortega on Unsplash

This fear is driving conversations about solutions that might protect our schools, from a renewed assault rifle ban to an improved background check system to arming our teachers. It has also prompted another round of anger at our public officials along with finger-pointing among those officials and others about who is to blame and who has the responsibility to take action in the interest of a safer future. These conversations, this finger-pointing, these solutions alone will not help us to create a future with no more senseless mass murders – in our schools or anywhere.

We propose a different conversation – one that creates real possibilities for a future that is different than our present. We would like to see the students at schools around the country, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, gather with other community members to explore steps that they can take together to create a future in which such atrocities are unfathomable.

While there is “no insurance policy against the human condition,” as Peter Block asserts in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, there is no hope of creating a different future if we don’t change how we relate to one another – and if we don’t take responsibility ourselves to make that happen. Waiting for someone else to act will likely only result in greater despair and divisiveness.

Meagan Picard, Principal member of The Athena Group and co-founder of Founding Froward Democracy Labs, shares a story to illustrate what we mean:

I was very lucky to get my daughter into the only alternative public elementary school in the area where I was living. They did an incredible job of building a sense of community within the school, in part through their requirement that all parents volunteer in the classroom. Though many parents (including me) couldn’t be there as much as the school wanted, it went a long way to building the kind of community that could prevent future atrocities.

There was a boy in my daughter’s Kindergarten class who was mean to my daughter and others and found himself isolated from other kids as a result, which only heightened his destructive behaviors. In addition to hearing about his behaviors from our children, other parents and I witnessed his behaviors in the classroom, at lunch and on the playground.

A small group of us parents talked about the situation, acknowledged that this boy’s life was tough and decided to intervene regularly and firmly, with love. Our children, witnessing our interventions, did the same – standing up for themselves but offering their friendship to him if he could behave like a real friend to them. By 5th grade, these kids were all close friends – he and my daughter were best friends. Now, this boy is a young man in a successful career and living a life filled with creative passions and blessed with loving friendships.

A little more than a year ago, he shared his own reflections on how these interventions changed his life. He said these experiences taught him, “compassion, to be caring, and how to love, among other things.” Because the community wrapped its arms around this boy rather than isolating him and waiting for someone else to “fix” him, he found the space to become his best self and to be a productive part of a better world.

When we hear stories about the young man that shot and killed 17 people and wounded more, we hear stories of isolation, like at the beginning Meagan’s story above and like the one shared recently via video on social media by another courageous man who described himself as a would-be shooter.

What if, instead, community members had wrapped their arms around him and given him a place to truly belong? How could the students, parents and teachers at his school have shown him that he mattered, even when he behaved “like a freak,” as some describe him? What if, like the kids at another high school, his school had a lunch club to which anyone could truly belong? What if it was a part of our culture to actively include all people in our communities – no matter the difficulties in some people’s lives that lead them to behave in unhealthy ways?

Founding Forward Democracy Labs (FFDL) offer a structured way for communities to imagine and try out such possibilities. Here’s what it might look like in a lab consisting of kids from all different cliques in a school:

Phase 1 – CONNECT: Participants build understanding of current context among them, creating a sense of community and belonging together while they are at it.

Phase 2 – DREAM: Participants own their part in the current context, take responsibility for creating a better future and imagine new possibilities that they can create together.

Phase 3 – DESIGN: Participants design projects to try out – projects in their own realm of power, like a school lunch club or a buddy program for new students.

Phase 4 – TRY: Participants implement small scale projects, reflect on them and decide what’s next, like scaling up a successful experiment or having more labs but with parents or other community members included.

What are the possibilities in your community? Take on FFDL or a similar type of effort to find out. The answers are in our communities.


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