About two years ago, students at Becker High School in rural Minnesota created a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). These students wanted a space where they could be themselves, connect and feel safe in a town where they often feel they don't fit in and can't express their true identities. For adolescents, access to safe spaces is a crucial part of development and exploring self-identity. For youth programs, this is a fundamental concern.
While physical safety is the foundation of the YPQA pyramid from the Center for Youth Program Quality, emotional safety is also of crucial importance. Only when youth feel emotionally and physically safe are they able to present themselves in an authentic way and engage in positive development. Without that authenticity, true development cannot take place. Researchers have discussed the need for safe spaces for fostering peer-to-peer relationships and for developing coping strategies and community among LGBT students.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reported in a 2015 report that in many states, including Minnesota, schools are unsafe and unwelcoming for LGBT students and that bullying of marginalized LGBT youth is still prevalent. The majority of LGBT students in Minnesota schools have heard anti-LGBT remarks, and many have heard staff make homophobic remarks. If schools aren't welcoming to all students, they can’t provide safe spaces for all children to develop.
This experience isn't unique to LGBT students; bullying is widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control, students who experience bullying are at greater risk for poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety and depression. Students who bully are at greater risk for academic problems, substance use and violent behavior later in adolescence and adulthood. Another study shows that students who experience bias-based bullying (bullying based on gender identity or race/ethnicity) are at greater risk for health problems than students who experience non-bias-based harassment. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s "Teaching Tolerance" project surveyed more than 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators and others and found incidents of discriminatory bullying on the rise in schools.
We as youth workers can make sure that the learning environments we provide during out of school time are safe and inclusive.
Ensure the safety of the spaces in which you work. Our job as youth workers is to create safe environments where youth feel belonging, especially those youth marginalized by society and powerful leaders. 4-H and other out-of-school-time programs are uniquely positioned to maintain spaces where youth feel safe by helping them understand their role in a diverse and global society.
- GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) has a “safe space kit” available. While it is geared toward youth in the LGBT community and their allies, it utilizes methods and strategies for cross-cultural application.
- Teaching Tolerance has some great free curriculum I have adapted for use with 4-H youth leaders, as well as film and teaching -- kits free to youth-serving nonprofits -- that break down cultural barriers and prejudice to help youth embrace their differences.
- WeConnect is a curriculum developed here in Minnesota that I have used to help youth think about their role as global citizens and learn how to thrive in a diverse society.
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