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Creating Safe Spaces through Mutual Affirmation

Creating Safe Spaces through Mutual Affirmation

FS290E
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Michael Wallace, Associate Professor, 4-H Regional Specialist, Alison White, Assistant Professor, 4-H Regional Specialist, Mary Deen, Professor, Family/4-H Youth Development Specialist, Mike Jensen, Associate Professor/WSU 4-H Camp Specialist
Good leadership begins with identifying our own biases and prejudices, great leadership helps others to identify theirs. Engender trust and group bonding through the powerful activity described in this article.
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4-H activities including 4-H clubs, camps, fairs, and after school programs are intended to be spaces where youth have the opportunity to develop belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. However, developing positive connections, engaging in learning, exhibiting individual identity, and understanding one’s value to a community can be difficult tasks for youth who often feel left out or left behind. Whether exclusion happens intentionally or unintentionally, it has repercussions not only for the youth but for the entire group. 4-H volunteers and staff can support and empower youth by carefully examining their biases and preferences, as well as those that exist collectively in their groups. They can demonstrate openness and non-judgmental communication. Providing youth with authentic opportunities to express differences in a safe and supportive environment models effective leadership while building healthier communities and developmental supports.

The Values of our Organization

4-H programs abide by the federal USDA and land grant university non-discrimination policies (USDA 2015; WSU 4-H Policy and Procedure Handbook 2016). Therefore, leaders must be open and willing to accommodate and respect diversity among youth, families, and adults in all 4-H program settings. Diversity may be expressed in many ways including age; physical, mental, or sensory ability; race; color; creed; national or ethnic origin; sex/gender; sexual orientation; gender identity/expression; religion; class; philosophy; and culture. By choosing to lead in the 4-H program, adults agree to abide by the program’s expectations: creating safe and affirming spaces for all youth. Leaders and staff must endeavor to model, communicate and uphold values of inclusion, and support a developing culture of positive belonging. All youth need opportunities to safely develop and explore their emerging identities as unique individuals and future leaders. “The Body” activity, described in detail later in this fact sheet, lays a positive foundation for this kind of interpersonal recognition of differences, which is vital in early group formation (Tuckman 1965).

Aligning Personal Values

People gain knowledge by using generalizations and preferences to categorize and identify differences as they learn and grow. Knowing what we prefer is a part of self-definition, however, as we define ourselves through differences it is possible that overlooked, non-inclusive biases can form, and even calcify into unhealthy prejudices.

Identifying & Unlearning Bias and Prejudice

Since our program policy requires non-discrimination, we must attempt to be sensitive to what others perceive as discrimination, and to offer safe and supportive spaces for dialogue that values individual differences. How do generalizations intended to help us develop understanding become prejudices that interfere with interpersonal communication? 4-H staff and volunteers need to be willing to examine their beliefs and determine when they are demonstrating prejudicial behavior. The easiest way to begin is to ask yourself “Are there protected classes listed in the program policy that I feel uncomfortable about?”

A Preference is our individual proclivity to place one thing before another, giving priority or advantage to one idea or thing over another as a way of defining ourselves. There is no harm in having preferences and all of us have them. “I believe I like chocolate cake.”

Bias emerges as our preferences begin to hinder our ability to make impartial or objective choices. “I like cake, so I often choose it over other options” becomes “I like cake, and I don’t want to eat anything else.” Problems can occur when individuals or groups rank one part of their identity so highly that other parts get ignored (Skuza and Russo 2014).

A Prejudice is a judgement, opinion or attitude held in disregard of the facts, often formed before all the facts are known (Chappelle and Bigman 1998). This is the knowing-without-thinking that can turn into stereotyping. “Brussel sprouts are gross therefore all vegetables are gross.”

Stereotypes applied to individuals are flawed because they assume that two separate and distinct people are “the same.” Can we truly categorize two individuals (each of whom are developing as separate beings with distinct experiences and temperaments) as “the same?” Bias and prejudice can present challenges to creating inclusive environments. By being mindful of the beliefs we hold about “groups” of people, we may be able to proactively recognize our prejudicial behavior. Unfortunately, long held beliefs, including those that emerge from our cultures, can operate like icebergs, with the majority of influence happening beneath conscious awareness. Our personal histories, beliefs, and values can become difficult barriers for others if we are not aware that how we are expressing ourselves may be interpreted as prejudicial (National 4-H 1996).

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