In defiance of bullies, freshman Tara Basting stood before her eighth-grade peers and shared the personal story of how she was called names and excluded in elementary school.
“People might think it’s funny to call someone stupid or ugly,” the 15-year-old says to her fellow students earlier this school year at South View Junior High. “But to the person they are telling it to, it’s not funny at all. All it does is tear down their self-esteem and makes them feel terrible about themselves.
“Even though they might think that bullying might get them ahead, you never really get anything from bullying people.”
Basting and a group of her friends are doing more than talking. They are showing fellow students in Edina and elsewhere how to alleviate, and hopefully stop, bullying. The South View students have partnered with Project Footsteps, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization that facilitates youth as catalysts for social change.
Last year, Mike Jackson, co-founder of Project Footsteps, presented in two eighth-grade classrooms on how bullying can be disruptive and can push some teens to suicide.
“We thought about how terrible it is, how depressing it was,” Besting says of Jackson’s examples.
To produce change, the South View girls set up a fundraiser, selling green bracelets with the message “everyone has a story.” The proceeds, which totaled about $500, went to help fund the launch of Project Footstep’s website, imgettingbullied.com. The site is a forum for students from across the world to feel safe in sharing their story of bullying and, in turn, receive encouragement and help.
The South View girls were encouraged by the website.
“It’s a good feeling that I’m helping others and to reach others in the community,” freshman Kala Dalbec says.
The concept of giving a voice to our youth is the founding mission of Project Footsteps, the creation of Jackson and Kyle Rucker as University of Minnesota students in 2005.
Rucker wrote a paper for his youth studies class on empowering youth to change their environment. The teacher gave him a failing grade, saying, “Yeah right, in your dreams,” Jackson says.
“That really fueled him,” Jackson says of Rucker.
Now Project Footsteps works with youth across the metro, in Duluth and elsewhere. Its website reaches children as far away as Australia.
“We try to get them to the point in realizing their power and responsibility without telling them,” Jackson says.
“They could understand the situation, realize the problem and point the finger at authority,” Jackson says, “or they could come to terms with their role in (bullying).”
In many ways, the South View students are acting as the ones required to stop bullying with the presentation in front of their eighth-grade peers, the establishing of “bully boxes,” a place for those bullied to submit their stories, and attendance at school board meetings.
“We are more confident, and it made us feel more powerful,” Dalbec says of working with Project Footsteps. “Just because we are students, that doesn’t mean we can’t make change. It isn’t always adults that have the power.”
Jackson realizes that speaking truth to authority figures isn’t always going to result in change, but that is part of the big picture for the students to understand, too.
“They’ve been able to see the sad realities of the world and internalize that,” Jackson says, “and navigate around that and still accomplish what they want to accomplish regardless of the barriers that may get put up along the way.”
As one of the students who has been bullied, Besting says simple efforts to get to know fellow students can be instrumental in alleviating the practice.
“One of the reasons that there is so much bullying is that kids don’t know each other,” Besting says. “You don’t bully your friends, but you bully people you don’t know. “As I say to people, ‘If you got to know people, you wouldn’t be mean to them.’”