“My name’s Isaac,” the email began. “I just wanted to let you know I love what you guys are doing. I have lots of friends who have been badly bullied and have always tried to help against bullying as much as I can. I myself have been hassled about acting gay (even though I’m straight).”
At MECASA, one of several projects we’ve developed in the last few years is the Backbone Zone, a social marketing campaign designed to encourage bystander intervention. It is geared toward older students, uses the language they use, and incorporates provocative images to get conversations started. We’ve gotten a considerable amount of response, including a community feature on BuzzFeed and requests from all over the world for the posters associated with the campaign.
But none of the responses pulled at our heartstrings like Isaac’s email.
Recently, I traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to present at a national conference about the creation of the Backbone Zone as a social marketing tool. While I was there, I was asked by an audience member, “What do you do about parents who are resistant to your messaging?”
I was prepared for this question. I launched into the importance of using the language students use to reflect it back to them, and how we’ve realized that in order to talk about bullying and sexual harassment, we have to say the words.
I talked about the importance of recognizing that students know when we’re skirting around an issue – so why not just come out, say it, and have a conversation about it? I talked about how having those same conversations with parents who are worried about “certain words” on posters is an important first step.
“No,” she interrupted. “What if parents are the ones using the language?”
I hadn’t really thought of it in that context. Of course I’ve encountered such adults in my own personal and professional life, but all of the resistance we met with regard to the Backbone Zone was from people worried about the use of “certain words” on posters. It wasn’t about whether the adults in question used homophobic and sexist language.
I don’t exactly remember my answer; it was something along the lines of what I’ve written about here before. Then, yesterday while I was cleaning out my email (getting ready for the new year and all), I came across Isaac’s emails from late October.
In one of our back and forth emails, I asked him what he did/does to stop bullying in his school – if there was anything specific that happened, or if it was a general thing he did with his friends on a regular basis. He responded minutes later.
“I always stand up for people if other people are gossiping about them, in my mind gossip can hurt someone more than saying or doing something to their face. And if I ever saw someone being hassled I would just tell the people doing it to lay off, because that type of stuff is just not all right, and it’s not all right to just walk past it and pretend you didn’t see it. People need to realize that it’s okay to stand up to bullies and help other people out.”
Rereading Isaac’s emails, and thinking back to the audience member’s question, I know that there are times in my own life – despite my profession and my belief in being an engaged community member – where I’ve walked by and pretended I didn’t see or hear something. Sometimes it’s easier to walk by than to explain that bullying and sexual harassment can lead to sexual violence perpetration, because there’s so much resistance to that idea. Sometimes I’m tired, it’s been a long day, and launching into that sort of thing is the last thing I feel like doing.
But then again, Isaac is right: It’s not all right to just keep going.
So along with shoveling out my email (keeping Isaac’s messages in my “When You’re Tired Read This” folder) and pretending that I’ll never let my inbox get so out of control again, I’m recommitting myself to standing up to bullies and helping other people out. It’s not just kids – it’s adults, too. And as an adult, it’s up to me to be as engaged as I think young people should be.