At NYC’s Lab School for Collaborative Studies, you‘ll find tables for group work, encouraging notes on lockers, and students openly admitting their dreams, failures, and what makes them unique. Here’s how the high school is celebrating vulnerability in their hallways and beyond—and combating bullying while they’re at it.
Senior Lena Jacobs owns that she can ride a unicycle. After years of trying to hide his disability, her classmate Bryan Stromer owns that he has cerebral palsy. Tim Shriver, the school’s in-house Dream Director whose job it is to challenge and support students in putting their dreams into action, owns that he has his heads in the clouds.
In February this year, the three of them helped kick off “Own It,” a campaign at Lab to encourage students and staff to embrace individuality and end bullying. Walk down the school’s hallways and at every turn you’ll find questions on the wall such as: What makes you weird? What’s your wildest dream? What’s your greatest failure? What makes you you?
“Have you ever been in a classroom and the teachers would ask you what animal you’d be and why? You’d always hear people say a lion, tiger, or some other really strong animal. I remember I once heard this girl say she’d be a pig because she could roll around in the mud and and not care what people think of her. That’s such a positive thing; why can’t we all do this?” Bryan says. “ ‘Own It’ is a nicer way of saying be a pig.”
How it came together
At the end of the fall, the idea for “Own It” starting taking shape. With Lab being a relatively quirky school (students are asked on a daily basis to plot their feelings on a mood meter, for example), Tim would talk with students and Future Project Fellows about how to create a shared identity. At the same time, Bryan and Lena started thinking about how it could tie in with their work with the Stand Up to Bullying club, which Bryan co-founded three years ago.
“We knew we had an idea, and everyone was excited about it, but we weren’t sure how we were going to engage people around why this actually matters,” Tim says.
So they got to work and within a few months had planned a high energy, interactive campaign launch event for February. There were poets and emcees, videos, music, and art —and lots of momentum that continued after it ended.
“People say ‘own it’ now like it’s part of their vocabulary,” Bryan says. If you get something wrong in math class, instead of everyone laughing, people will say, ‘Own it!’ It’s a nice way to embrace mistakes and embarrassment.”
A big part of “Own It” is spreading the idea to not only other NYC schools—three recently met with the Chancellor of NYC’s Department of Education—but beyond.
Whether you’re from a suburban or urban area, or attend a large or small school, here are their tips on how to make it happen where you live:
1. Keep it real with student leadership.
While it’s definitely a bonus to have Tim providing guidance, ultimately the campaign is student-created and student-led.
“At end of the day, it’s not a club. It’s something that exists within the entire school and affects everyone. It raises the spirits of the entire population,” Lena says. “We want it to stay in the student vibe.”
2. Grow a support network.
Aside from having a staff member they could trust, engaging other students kept them from getting stuck.
“You’re your own worst enemy. If you don’t have someone to keep pushing you to move forward, then sometimes you can end up holding yourself back,” Bryan says. “There are probably 20 of us who are equally invested in this idea and concept. If any of us are having doubts, we look to the support of peers.”
3. Create a catchy brand.
“Own it” is just a fun thing to say. And to create even more excitement, they pasted black and white flyers of the questions all over the hallways to create a buzz before the launch, keeping an element of surprise.
3. Toss out the notion of a standard school assembly.
Instead of an assembly, they called it a campaign launch and made it engaging from every angle. They showed a video Lena made of the teachers disclosing little-known facts about themselves. Poets read in the aisles. The audience participated talk show-style, complete with shouts and claps. Macklemore’s “Same Love” provided the soundtrack.
4. Create continual opportunities for people to own it.
At the launch, students were asked to sign a pledge. The pledge is now up in the hallways, along with index cards they filled out during the event of what they owned: fear of being locked in a coffin, love of Bugs Bunny, and dreams of traveling the world, among others. They even update their Instagram account daily.
“That’s been really cool because people have started following Instagram, and they look forward to it. I’ve been asked by a couple of people who are not directly involved with ‘Own It’ if they can be on it,” Lena says. “Even if we’re touching only one or two other people, it’s an impact we’re making and it’s exciting.”
5. Own your commitment to it.
The campaign had a rocky beginning at first, as people didn’t understand what the group was trying to do. But they persisted.
“Keep going forward and making progress no matter how small it is. It might seem really challenging to start, but once you figure out the idea, keep moving,” Bryan says.
Lena and Bryan may be heading off to college next year, but the hope is that “Own It” will live on. For them, being part of the campaign has helped them strengthen their friendship and connect with others they might not have ever known they had something in common with. For Tim, it’s confirmed something he’s had a suspicion about all along.
“The people who can say where they are most vulnerable are the ones who rock this world. If you look at history, you see it. You look at this school, you see it,” he says. “This is the opportunity we have. Not only to say you can stop bullying, but this is the way to make you the most powerful person you can possibly be.”
Inspired to bring “Own It” to your school? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.