Author Archives: bolster

‘Tis the season?

Holiday decorations abound and one local radio station is already broadcasting carols 24/7, but I’m having a hard time catching the spirit of the season given recent events in our country.

I’ve struggled with what, if anything, I had to add to the national discourse around the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice (and so many others). What could I, a white man soon approaching his 60th year on the planet, have to say about this situation that hasn’t already been said by so many others, likely much more eloquently than I could ever hope? Do I have a right to weigh in on realities that others, including people I know well, live with on a daily basis when I, privileged with a particular skin color, am protected from the same realities and fear for how I or my children or grandchildren will be treated, particularly by people in authority? How could I, when raised in a community and family culture that held authority in high regard, have a vantage point of balance?

In the end what won out in this internal debate was this question: “How can you not say something?” So, given the caveat that my reality is my reality – which certainly impacts the depth of my understanding – I venture forth.

I cannot understand, in all the pondering I’ve done on these cases, how it is that in the year 2014 people are dying in situations where they are clearly unarmed, have a toy gun (and aren’t threatening anyone), or are selling individual cigarettes on the street. How do we absorb the violent take down of our brothers (and sisters) with faces being smashed into the sidewalk or street while pleading “I can’t breathe” – all when they had not inflicted violence on others – and not be appalled? How do we rationalize the disparity in arrests, shootings, and deaths among minorities compared to whites in similar circumstances. . . and allow the patterns to continue?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge I don’t understand the stress of the daily beat of law enforcement. I can’t imagine the kinds of life and death decisions they are sometimes required to make in split seconds. But is this really the best we can hope for as a result of current law enforcement training and professional development? REALLY?

And then I recalled the situation one of our children faced in High School. Believing that he was falsely accused of passing another vehicle in an unsafe area, we supported him arguing his case in court rather than simply paying the fine. (We saw this as an amazing learning opportunity and, since he was, and is, a well-spoken young man, we felt he could handle himself in this setting.) He did a phenomenal job of representing himself, providing compelling arguments for his perspective. His self-guided defense was complete with pictures of the section of road where the “transgression” occurred. But what happened as the judge rendered his verdict was troubling . . . and has flashed through my mind often in the past few weeks. He said, in essence: “You have made a compelling case. If the officer had to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt, he’d have failed. However, in this case, I have to go on the fact that the officer has 15+ years experience and knows better.” A perfect opportunity to teach a young man that the justice system works and treats the accused and the law enforcement professional equally was totally lost. Because the officer “knew better.”

To what degree does our entire judicial system rely on those within the system “knowing (and DOING) better?” And how are we assured they, in fact, do? This is what I find myself struggling to resolve in passing days.

We have so much work to do as a nation on this front. SO. MUCH. WORK.

So, in this season where being joyful is billed as the norm, I’m just not feeling it yet. The Spirit has some work to do.

Our Best Tool to Stop Bullying

We have a tendency in our country to make things more complicated than necessary. When dealing with issues concerning our young people, for example, we tend to seek solutions in program-based responses. Often times, a much simpler solution is not only much more readily available, but also more effective. This is not to say that programs don’t work or don’t have a place in our response—it just means they may not be an appropriate first response.

In the world of bullying prevention, the “simpler solution” includes the power of bystanders. Research shows that when a peer bystander intervenes in a bullying situation, the bullying usually stops within 10 seconds. 10 SECONDS. (In our work developing resources for sexual harassment and assault, we are also finding peer intervention as the most effective strategy.) THAT is a powerful intervention worth nurturing!

Peers need to be coached in how to intervene, sure. That training may happen in the context of a program, true. But let’s be sure to keep our eyes on the importance of relationship building and social emotional skills MORE than entering the slippery slope of “criminalizing” bullying behavior (the person bullying needs our support and guidance too) and thinking the solution lies in ever more structured ways of passing on expectations and norms.

Making Sparks Fly: Getting Unstuck at 30,000 Feet

view from the plane

As soon as I settled into my window seat aboard a recent flight home from Bangor, Maine, I had my hands full. The day before, I’d keynoted the Positive Youth Development Institute’s opening session – an event my dad had keynoted just two years before – so it held special meaning for me.

As I sat there thinking about the day, reliving the speech and the powerful conversations I’d had with people afterwards, a young woman in her early 20s sat down in a huff next to me, her tattooed arms loaded with items wrapped in craft paper. She turned to me with pleading eyes. “Sorry, but could you hold these for a minute?” I held out my hands and asked what it was.

“Pottery,” she said. “I just spent three weeks at an art camp in the woods.”

Totally intrigued, I asked for more details.

“I’m trying to find myself,” she shrugged. Her parents were both teachers, she explained, so a career in education seemed like a natural fit. But two years out of college, after working as a full-time camp counselor and after school program leader, she felt stuck and unsatisfied.

“I really like kids,” she went on, as the flight attendant handed us our in-flight beverages. “But I want to work with them doing things I really like doing instead of just showing up for a paycheck. So, I’m spending the summer trying to figure out what I like doing. And I really like art.”

She unwrapped one of her pieces of pottery and, when I remarked how beautiful it was, she excitedly shared every little detail that went into making it. After several minutes, she stopped herself and looked up at me.

“Sorry, enough about me,” she said sheepishly. “What were you doing in Maine?”

“Believe it or not, I was speaking to people like you about how important it is to find the passions and interests that light you up from the inside out.”

Her jaw dropped open. “No way! Most people think this little early-life crisis of mine is crazy,” she said.

“It’s actually brilliant,” I told her.“Finding those inner sparks not only brings you joy, but gives you the tools and desire to help the kids you work with do the same. If you can figure out ways to serve others doing the stuff you love, everybody wins.”

She lifted her half-full plastic cup in the air. “Well, cheers to everyone finding their sparks,” she said. I’ll toast to that.

Speaking at PYD Institute

About the Author: For the past 20 years, youth and family engagement has been an undercurrent in Liv’s work as a journalist, publicist, and creative entrepreneur — inspired in large part by her dad, Dr. Peter Benson (1946–2011), former Search Institute president and CEO and a pioneer in the positive youth development field. She relishes the chance to carry on his legacy, beautifully blending his messages with her own. Check out her web site www.