Students United was a youth lead social change project that I facilitated in Lancaster, PA. The project was funded by Lancaster County Community Foundation via the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board. This WIB is unique because it has a long standing strategy of supporting youth via community-based projects for decades.
My role was to create a space for the students to lead and create a community-based project.
Participants: Students age 13 – 17 from Lancaster Mennonite, School District of Lancaster, Conestoga Valley School District, Penn Manor School District, Lancaster Country Day and the home school community. Not all students participated in all meetings.
Meeting locations: Clipper (Baseball) Stadium, Lancaster Marriott lobby, Millersville University’s Ware Center, South Market Business Center
The students didn’t believe me, at first, that they were going to think through and launch a social change project. They couldn’t believe they were being given this must free reign. They thought that they were there to give input, not run things. I started by facilitating an exercise using cards that had 45 different social issues written on them. We stood in a circle, with the cards in the middle and the students got to pick a card and speak to the group. First they read the social issue, said if they knew anything about it, if they did, share what they knew about it then they had to recommend to the group whether or not they thought it was something important and why. After a 2-3 minute discussion, each card was sorted into a pile, which had to be agreed upon by consensus. The piles were 1. yes, explore more, 2. maybe and 3. no, no important to us. One of the topics, racial profiling ended up on the yes pile.
At the second meeting I demonstrated how to facilitate action planning. Each student had an opportunity to practice at that meeting. At the end, I asked for a volunteer to facilitate the next meeting. From this point, I would only step in where asked and would help get the meetings started with short exercises to give some structure for the collaborative time. At a certain point, they decided to meet on their own and the parents involved agreed to it. It appeared they had a productive meeting because they came back deciding that they would train other students to use the program they were going to develop.
Racial profiling turned into the group creating a program to teach other students about diversity. There was research and plenty of discussion in between the first meeting and the development of the program.
The students really thought about the program that they developed including the need for students to teach it, not adults. They thought it would have more impact.
The project was launched at a local conference attended by 120 students from Eastern PA. The students designed a process to teach the conference attendees about stereotypes and ethnicity. They facilitated the group and gained leadership experience. It was very well received and the Students United students expressed their surprise at being successful. They had tackled a tough issue and created something good and useful.
As I reflected on the project, I was honored that the students stepped up to create change. The students approached the local YWCA to sustain the program but it never worked out. Instead, two of the students worked with a teacher and implemented the program at their school. The important lesson for me was as a facilitator. I do different types of facilitation projects and some require more leadership than others. Students United required really stepping back and allowing the conversation to grow organically.