October is national Anti-Bullying Month, and we are struck by the ways in which Not a #Number, Love146’s child trafficking and exploitation prevention program, can create a space where youth feel safe to share about their experiences — ways they’ve been hurt, ways they’ve hurt others — and learn strategies to build their resilience, identify support systems, and increase their empathy.
During one of the activities, youth have an opportunity to explore the power of language. They look at the negative and positive effects that specific words and statements can have on a person’s self-esteem, their safety and well-being. Each one receives a handout with an empty face where they can write down and reflect on words and labels that have been used to hurt them.
This activity can be really hard. For some youth, the words are painful reminders of the past. For others, these labels may describe their current reality — “homeless,” “gay,” “poor” — and it’s a raw and heavy experience. All too often, the papers are covered by words that have been used to describe them, no matter their background: “ugly,” “failure,” “mistake,” “slut,” “stupid,” or “worthless.” They may describe the feeling of hearing their complex, unfolding lives reduced to only one hurtful label. Sometimes young people find themselves expressing suicidal thoughts, impulses towards self-harm, sadness, and shame. Some write full paragraphs about how they have been bullied for years. “Words hurt more than a physical hit,” wrote one Not a #Number participant. “The pain of a punch will eventually go away, but a word will stay forever with you.” Sometimes they tell the group that they’ve heard these cruel words from their own friends and family, and that hurts even more.
IT’S A SAFE PLACE TO FEEL PAIN. BUT IT’S ALSO A SAFE PLACE TO FEEL HOPE.
Because there is a second part to the activity. Together we explore the words that they would like to hear instead: what they believe to be true about their potential, who they are, and who they want to be. “You are not a disappointment,” wrote one youth. “I want to hear — I love you,”wrote another.
We also ask them to write a kind word on someone else’s paper. And something shifts: their attitudes, their postures — sometimes even a smile. Their papers start to crowd up with words like “worthy,” “strong,” “perfect,” “loved,” “compassionate,” “you will make it,” “you deserve better.” There’s so much hope in the words that youth write to each other, even if they don’t know one another that well. “You are not a disappointment.” “Keep fighting.” “You will survive.” “You are beautiful.” “You seem like someone I would like to get to know!”
NO MATTER OUR AGE AND BACKGROUND, WE FIND THAT WORDS ARE POWERFUL ENOUGH TO TEAR SOMEONE’S LIFE APART. BUT THEY ARE ALSO POWERFUL ENOUGH TO HELP SOMEONE HEAL AND FIND STRENGTH.
In day-to-day life, it’s really hard for most of us — even as adults — to separate the things we hear about ourselves into “truth” and “lies.” For lots of young people, Not a #Number provides the first opportunity they’ve had to think of all the labels that have stuck to them, hold each one up to the light, and begin to reject them as untrue or narrow-minded.
Anti-bullying month reminds us to use our words for truth and encouragement, standing up for others who are being bullied and reminding one another who we are. It’s an invitation to be kinder in the way we talk to others — and to ourselves. In honor of anti-bullying month, take some time to remind someone in your life who they are and why they’re important. You never know what you might be healing with your words.
NOTHING FIGHTS BULLYING BETTER THAN TRUTH. PUT TRUTH INTO
ACTION BY SUPPORTING NOT A #NUMBER. YOUR SUPPORT LETS
US BRING THE CURRICULUM INTO SCHOOLS, SHELTERS,
GROUP HOMES, DETENTION CENTERS, ETC.
AND MAKE YOUTH STRONGER BY
REMINDING THEM WHO