Lee Rush, Upper Bucks Healthy Communities Healthy Youth Coalition’s Community Mobilizer, was invited along with 80 other national leaders to Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to help launch Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation (BTWF). Held on February 29th, the event was also sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and drew high-profile names like Oprah Winfrey (who will broadcast part of the event on an upcoming television special), Deepak Chopra, and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
The event was a way for the BTWF to gain “input from experts in the youth development field to help them formulate goals and priorities.” During the day, he met with twelve other professionals in the School Culture and Climate work-stream. A total of five other small groups met during the day focusing on issues such as research and evaluation, legalities, youth-driven initiatives, school-based and social media curriculum. At the end of the day, each work-stream reported out to the larger group results of their day’s work and recommendations. The BTWF will be producing a paper encompassing the day’s proceedings.
Led by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, the BTWF aims to foster a safe community by helping adolescents develop the skills necessary to create a “braver, kinder world.” After Lady Gaga was introduced by Oprah, she immediately made clear that the BTWF was not an “anti-bullying” initiative. “This is about transformative change and culture,” she said. “This is not an anti-bullying foundation — this is a youth empowerment foundation. The BTWF encourages healthy youth development through research, training and service, according to the Center’s website.
“I want everyone to feel safe in their community,” Gaga said. “The three pillars are SSO — Safety, Skills, and Opportunity… Once you feel safe in your environment and you acquire the skills to be a loving and accepting person, the opportunities for you are endless to become a great, functioning human in society.”
In Rush’s small work group, he shared stories of hope and positive outcomes from the many schools and communities that have already immersed themselves in the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) SaferSanerSchool Whole School Change initiative. (Rush is also an instructor for the IIRP). Rush reported that it was clear from the reactions of some of his fellow work-stream participants that the idea of changing the culture and climate of a school through restorative practices was not only practical but essential.
“I was happy to see the BTWF focus on the overarching goal of promoting youth empowerment for good and not as an anti-bullying effort,” he commented on his return home.
On the day after the event, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote about the event, pointing out that “Experts from scholars to Education Secretary Arne Duncan are calling for more focus on bullying not only because it is linked to high rates of teen suicide, but also because it is an impediment to education.”
A piece by Connie Yowell at the Huffington Post, listed BTWF’s three essential pillars to building a braver, kinder world:
- Youth need a safe environment in which to explore themselves and their individuality.
- They need to learn the skills required to feel empowered and to lead.
- Finally, they need opportunities to impact their local communities through solutions of their own design.
The local newspaper, The Intelligencer, ran a lengthy article about the event. Below is an excerpt from the article. Here is a link to the full article.
Perkasie’s Lee Rush wasn’t invited to participate in the symposium because he knows somebody. He was invited because he knows something about bullying through his work as a trainer at the Bethlehem-based Institute of Restorative Practices, a program designed to reduce discipline issues and improve the academic performance of students, and justCommunity, a youth development agency in Upper Bucks he founded in 1999.
“I was at the oldest university in the country with people like Oprah and Lady Gaga, who has 20 million Twitter followers, talking about the problem of bullying,” said Rush, who was invited to the symposium by a planner he met at an international conference on bullying and prevention in November in New Orleans. “It was a high honor to be asked to be there.”
Sharing his knowledge on restorative justice and what happens when kids break rules, Rush brainstormed with the School Culture and Climate group, one of six 15-member groups of experts, researchers, policymakers and foundation representatives who met twice during the daylong symposium. Each smaller group then reported to the entire group. “I’ve been involved my whole life in youth development and environment,” Rush said. “My takeaway from the symposium is that the work that I’m involved with in Upper Bucks and Quakertown is as relevant as any place in the world.”
There were longtime anti-bullying authorities like Rush, and there were neophytes like Lady Gaga, herself a target of bullies in school, where she was once tossed into a trash can. “For Lady Gaga, someone so influential among young people, to focus her foundation on bullying is so important,” Rush said. “She was articulate and bright. She said she didn’t have all the answers and is still learning. She said the movement for a kinder, more compassionate world must come from the kids. And that her mom is president of the organization shows that she is well-grounded.”