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Building Future Leaders for Safer Schools and Tomorrows

Monday Maine MavenOur Monday Maine Maven is the Director of The Unity Project (UP), Nicole Manganelli.

UP is a non-profit, school-based bias and harassment prevention program focused on Maine middle and high schools. The mission of UP is to build strong leadership among young people and adults to prevent harassment and create safe schools. As Director, Nicole oversees all components of the program’s development and implementation.

 

 

1.    Nicole, where did the idea for UP come from?  How severe is the need for anti-bullying campaigns and programs like this in Maine and beyond?

UP was originally a part of the Center for Preventing Hate (CPH), and became an independent program in 2011. UP was born from a hate crime prevention model: Steve Wessler, the founder of CPH, was a prosecutor in the Maine Attorneys General office and recognized a pattern of young people’s involvement in hate crime cases in Maine, both as perpetrators and victims. The Unity Project was part of a plan for preventing hate violence through education, early intervention, and leadership development among young people.

The Unity Project began in 2002 with two schools and has had up to 80 schools involved at a time each year, stretching across Maine and New Hampshire, as well as nationally and in Northern Ireland. Over time, UP has become a partnership with schools, and is working to primarily use a training-of-trainers program model in order to give schools the skills they need to sustainably implement bias and harassment prevention work in their own communities.

There is a significant need for school-based programs that focus on bias and harassment prevention. In 2011, the Maine Department of Education partnered with researchers Stan Davis and Chuck Saufler to conduct the Maine Youth Voices survey in fourteen schools across Maine. Over 3,700 students in grades 4-12 participated, with the majority of responses coming from middle school students (grades 6-8). That study found that 79% of students witnessed (weekly or more frequently) the indirect use of biased language (that’s retarded; that’s so gay; bias-motivated jokes, etc.), and 30% witnessed threats of physical harm or violence (Davis and Saufler, 2011).

2.    Your work focuses on reaching Maine middle and high schools. How did you decide on this as your target audience?

Historically, UP focused on grades 3-12. However, when UP became an independent program, we decided to temporarily narrow the scope of our program offerings in order to collect evaluation data about conducting this type of work specifically with adolescents. We also know that often issues of harassment peak during adolescent years, as peer influence becomes of paramount importance.

3.    What have been the most effective ways in sharing UP’s messages? Has social media played a role?

UP is built on the ideas of dialogue, empathy development, and leadership skill-building. Young people are some of the most effective carriers of UP’s message, as they do the daily work of interrupting degrading language and reaching out to students in their schools who are targeted. Likewise, faculty, staff, and administrators across Maine and beyond reinforce the ideals of the Unity Project as they create safer spaces for students. UP’s Facebook page has provided a forum for connecting with students, faculty/staff, and parents, but UP’s primary way of sharing its message is through those individual and collective personal connections among program participants, their colleagues, and families.

4.    What do you see as your organization’s biggest challenge in sharing your messages and reaching your goal of preventing hate and harassment?

Being precise about naming the climate issues that schools face is definitely a challenge. During the recent surge in national dialogue about school safety, bullying has become a widely over-used term. Generalized bullying prevention efforts sometimes eclipse a more focused examination of the underlying issues of bias and harassment that many schools are experiencing. It’s important to be clear about the forms (and the extent) of bias and harassment within a school, because that may significantly impact planned prevention and intervention programming.

5.    How can people support or get involved with UP?

Spread the word! Most schools hear about our programs through teachers, administrators, parents, and/or community members who either have participated in UP programs or who have heard about the impact of the work at other schools. Feel free to pass on UP’s website (maineup.org) or contact information for me, to school personnel who are looking to create safer, more inclusive school communities. In addition, individuals can make tax-deductible donations to the Unity Project here: http://maineup.org/support.php. Thank you to everyone who is able to support UP through any of these means.

 Connect with UP on Facebook and Nicole on LinkedIn.

 

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