A group of about 20 teenagers from different schools and different backgrounds gathered in a circle for the last day of the Peacebuilders & Justice program

On June 30, it had been two weeks since the group first met for the summer program in Winston-Salem led by Triad Restorative Justice. 

During that time, the teens got to know one another by discussing their identities, ideas about conflict and harm, needs, and boundaries. They talked about the social justice issues that got them “fired up” and developed ideas to solve those problems in one of the spaces they spend the most time in — school. 

Ellen Fox, an education specialist who led the program, said the first four days were about creating a safe environment where the teens could trust each other and feel connected. 

“And then on day five, we shift into the work,” she said. “And the professional work is, we want them to design some solutions that might make their school, which is the space where they have the most amount of power, a place that has more belonging.”

Fox didn't tell the participants to focus on the aspect of belonging in schools, but through their conversations, that was what came up. 

Arvriel Douthit, a 15-year-old at Reynolds High School, said she witnessed a lot of cliques and division among her peers. 

“I know a lot of people who are not comfortable saying [where they attend] middle school or their elementary school, high school even, and I know, one of the reasons is because they don't feel like they fit in there,” she said. 

Feeling like you belong in the school you go to is important, she said. 

“Once you get into those ideas that you don't belong somewhere, depression can start, which could lead to other problems,” Douthit said. 

Throughout the program, the teenagers brainstormed solutions that could be implemented in schools to combat the division and help students feel like they belong. On the last day, adults from the community were invited to help fine-tune their ideas. 

Douthit decided there needed to be more reminders at school for students to be kind to each other. She proposed a daily announcement encouraging students to try speaking to somebody new or making someone feel included. 

“Even though that's like small, little baby steps, I feel like those baby steps could really make the place a more enjoyable place to be,” Douthit said. 

18-year-old Brooke Lackey, who has been attending the program since it began five years ago, came up with the idea for a check-in box where students could drop a note to let their teachers know about a problem they're having. 

“Students have their own lives outside of school that they may not necessarily want to share with the whole class or even their teacher directly,” she said. “So the idea is that the check-in box will provide an anonymous passageway to communicate with a teacher about something that's been bothering them.”

That could be anything from a lack of sleep to a more serious issue at home. Having a safe, non-confrontational way to let an adult know about what's going on could make students feel more comfortable in class, Lackey said. 

“If you have a way, any way, to tell somebody about what's going on, that might just help you feel like you belong in the classroom,” she said. “Or that might help you focus more, or that might just make your day that much better.”

In the coming weeks, the group will get to present their ideas to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Tricia McManus. Fox said this won't be a case of the adults doing all of the work. 

“The scariest part of making a change happen is the responsibility and onus being on you to arrange meetings and to set up conversations and build trust and make commitments,” she said. “And so if we're doing that for them, they don't learn how to do it themselves.”

Instead, Fox said the program worked to empower the youth with information and a consistent space to hold each other accountable for what they've set out to do. 

“We're ultimately trying to get them to a place of commitment of something they care enough about where they're fired up. … How are you going to use that fire for good, not for damage?” Fox said. 

It will be up to the students to speak up about the issues they care about, but it will also be up to the adults in the room to listen. Lackey said she thinks their ideas are worth trying.

“I think schools should give these kinds of approaches a shot because students are directly impacted by school decisions, and they're not often included in them,” she said. “So when students are given spaces, such as the ones that PB&J provide, to really reflect on their experiences, big, beautiful solutions can come out of them.”

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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