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The Voices Project


In late January, we are relaunching The Voices Project. A blog initiative of Conversations on the Fringe that will share stories of people who are marginalized in our society. Our hope is, these stories will re-humanize people who are often forgotten about and pushed to the fringes of our world. We walk by these people daily in our own journeys but pay little attention to them or their stories.

Karen Bradford-Cassidy will be our primary Story-teller. She works for the Salvation Army and has a ginormous heart for those she encounters in her daily work. She is a gifted writer as well.

Here’s a preview of her first post, coming out next week:

“Yesterday at lunch I had such a powerful moment of clarity. There are times you know you are wearing the shoes you are supposed to wear, so you can walk the road you are supposed to walk.

One of our clients was talking to me with such brutal honesty. He said: “ you can’t see my disability. But it is there. Just like a man in a wheelchair. It takes everything in me, every day to quiet the voices that want to be heard. It is exhausting being me. And Karen, I did not ask to be born this way, and I get so tired, but I know there is a reason.” 

I was so moved and humbled by his honesty. 

Seeing past people’s outside into their hearts and minds, and into their lives is what we are all called to do. Whether you are an officer, a waitress, an attorney, a miner…we are called to hear one another and to “bear with one another.” Mental illness is a powerful force in so many people’s lives…I pray that God will use me always as His eyes to see their struggles and to remind them that they are loved right where they are.”

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Top 10 Highlights of 2017


Reimagining Adolescence: A Workshop for People Who Love Adolescents – We launched this training in early 2017 and receive tremendous feedback. In this training we explore how culture, biology, society, and psychology all intersect in the developing adolescent. We loved the people we met around the state; parents, teachers, youth workers, social workers, etc. and everyone of them are to be honored for their commitment to impacting the lives of young people.

Urban Youth Workers Institute National Conference – We love spending time in Southern California, on the beautiful campus of Azusa Pacific with Larry Acosta and his awesome staff from UYWI. Joining Larry and his team each year to invest in urban youth workers is always a highlight for us. The hard work of ministering to at-risk/at-potential youth is unparalleled in so many ways. The resilience of these saints and the kids they reach in inspiring.

Youth Leadership Academy – Elgin Community College hosts the Youth Leadership Academy, a six year intensive for 7th grade through 12th grade that focuses on character development, life skills, and service learning projects. Each student accepted to and completes the program will receive two years of free tuition at ECC and upon completion of an Associates Degree will receive another two years of free tuition at Judson College. This program deters the school to prison pipeline that often exists in impoverished communities.

Community Conversations – We hosted and facilitated community conversations on a variety of difficult topics this year. During these discussions, we addressed some of the following; parenting in the digital age, depression & suicide, anger & anxiety, self-harm, adolescent development, conflict & communication, the impact of popular culture, and current drug trends. These community dialogues are intended to make the general public aware of the issues adolescents face today and best practices for walking alongside them.

Faith Forward – Faith Forward is an annual gathering of forward thinking Christian leaders. This is one of our favorite annual gatherings and it continues to give us life in the work we do. We had the privilege of teaching a breakout session there on Family Systems, Attachment Theory, and the Imago Dei.

Not At My School: Anti-Bullying Program – This was a new initiative in 2017. It is aimed at elementary and middle schools to help create safer, more welcoming, and healthier social and learning environments. Working with the young children who participate in this program was so much fun. Several of the classes we worked with developed Not In My School groups that continued the work of shaping the culture of their schools. These students leaders inspired us all throughout the year, and continue to do so.

Race and Racism: A Visitor’s Guide (An Adult Learning Community) – We cautiously and hesitantly launched this class at a local church. The purpose of this class was to help white Christians deconstruct their whiteness. In the context of a learning community, several people engaged in the difficult work of learning about and challenging their white privilege and supremacy. This work continued after the class ended but this community still journeys together online and in personal relationships.

Grant Coordinator – Our founder, Chris Schaffner, took a new community-based position at the end of the summer. He continues to lead Conversations on the Fringe but in addition to that he is the coordinator for the Drug Overdose Prevention Program through the state of Illinois. He oversees 38 counties and works with three sub-contractors. The work they are doing together is making a difference in the lives of individuals and families impacted by the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our country. There were 64,000+ overdose deaths in 2016. Chris, along with his team,  trains and distributes Naloxone (Narcan), an overdose reversal medication in all 38 counties.

Foster Care – Chris and his family have also entered the world of Foster Care in 2017. Their home has always been a respite for those in need of a warm bed and hot meal but this year they began the process of becoming licensed foster care parents. They’re hope is to offer their home to older teens that are among the hardest to place, so much so, that many age-out of the system without foster care placement. Please pray for them as they continue their journey into “loving the least of these”.

Willow Jean – The number one highlight of 2017, we welcomed Willow Jean Schaffner into the world. Chris’ son and his significant other gave birth to their first grandchild. They are thrilled to transition into grand-parenting and readily accept the title. Willow represents hope and audacity at a very dark time in our country’s existence. Her smile and big bright eyes shine light into that darkness and continues to motivate us to do the work we’ve been called to.

A warm and grateful thank you to all of you who supported us in 2017. We look forward to some new opportunities in 2018.

May 2018 usher in a growing awareness of your intrinsic value to the human race and to the ushering in and growth of the Beloved Community, in which everyone is welcome to.

Grace and peace,

CotF

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2017


Here’s our annual list of most viewed blog posts for the year. We did not publish as much content this year as we have in earlier years but we got more traffic on the site. That’s largely due to a couple of cultural phenomenons, such as Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix and continued race and racism related issues. There were a lot of people looking for answers to some hard questions this year. Here’s what we saw from you…

  1.  Thirteen Reasons Why Discussion Guides
  2. Addressing the Racial Climate in Your Youth Group
  3. Trauma-Informed Youth Ministry
  4. Beyond Whiteness: Resources on Race for White Congregations
  5. After Text Message Case, Words Matter Even More
  6. Language Matters
  7. The Art of Connecting with Kids on the Fringe
  8. A Report on Eating Disorders (by a 12 year old)
  9. A Report on Bullying (by a 12 year old)
  10. Youth Ministry and the Post-Modern Learner

We added two new content creators this year as well, Patti Gibbons and Melissa Rau. Patti is penning our Fringe Parenting articles and Melissa helped curate and write the Thirteen Reasons Why Discussion Guides. We’re excited to share more from each of them in 2018 and are looking to add a couple fresh voices as well.

Thanks for your support this year. We believe deeply in the work we’re doing and couldn’t do it without your support.

Merry Christmas,

CotF

The Art of Connecting with Kids on the Fringe


After a workshop I facilitated on working with kids who are abused, an elderly woman approached me to ask me a question. She shocked me with the simplicity and depth of the question.  

Here’s what she said,

“I love the kids in my community but I don’t know how to connect with them. I want to reach out but don’t know where to start.  How do you do it?”

I can’t really remember what I told her, probably an overly simplified answer. I honestly never thought about it. I just did what felt natural when reaching out to others. Plus, I have the added benefit of being pretty simple, if I don’t know someone I would just introduce myself and talk to them. It wasn’t until I talked to my wife that she opened my eyes to the idea that for some this comes easy.  For others though it is an anxiety inducing event. I imagine we all long to reach out to this generation, a generation that is slipping through the cracks right before our very eyes, but the words escape some of us when needed most.  Some of us struggle with how to connect beyond a simple “Hello, how are you today?”

My wife and I talked about this for several hours over the next few days. We explored why connecting with these kids that seemed so different from us. Asking me how I connect with fringe kids is like asking a fish to describe water. I spend so much time out there on the fringe that it has become normal. Truth be told, I struggle to make connections with “normal” people. The “weirder” the better and easier. My wife often tells me I have a superpower: TEEN WHISPERER! (I think that sounds rather creepy and would definitely send up red flags to those who don’t understand youth workers.)

But, I have developed, over the years, skills to build bridges with teenagers. Still, many others report they just don’t know where to start.

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about ways to connect with teens on the fringe:

Bridge building

How to make that first contact in a meaningful way? Look for low-hanging fruit. Is the student wearing something you can connect over, like a sports jersey? I am a die-hard baseball fan. If I see a student wearing something related to baseball, I know I instantly have a bridge to walk across. If they are wearing a concert shirt from a band I know, that’s another bridge. Rainbow gear, they are likely a part of or a supporter of the LGBTQ community. Listening to Spotify, there’s a natural connection when you ask about what’s on their playlist. These are simple ways to get the conversation going.

Cultivating a spirit of learning

Curiosity is key in connecting with others.  How do we foster a spirit of curiosity? I always have back-pocket questions available when interacting with a resistant student. Such as, “Who are you listening to?” or “what have you read lately that either bored you to tears or inspired you?” Another question is, “What are you hoping to do after you graduate?” or “What problem do you hope to solve as you move into adulthood?” Occasionally I’ll bust out with a fun request, such as; “using only 5 words, tell me about yourself.” and when they give me those words, I ask them to “Tell me more about that.”

It is also important to stay curious about youth culture. What are teens paying attention to in popular culture, what type of technology are they using, and what other cultural artifacts are capturing their attention? Another area to stay curious about it adolescent development. We are learning so much about the body and brain that we can barely keep up with it. This is immeasurably helpful when working with teens.

Law of the lid

We should explore our preconceived expectations of these fringe kids and how they impede our interactions with them. Adults are prone to make quick assessments of kids, with limited information, and then make a universal determination about that particular kid is like. For example, a new student comes to youth group. You reach out and make no headway towards a connection. In fact, the student basically ignores you. If we use that single experience to judge that kid, it will likely impact all of our future experiences with them. We set a limit on what we expect from certain kids and often underestimate others who seem different. When we do that we place a “lid” on them and after repeated hitting their head on that “lid” may decide to throw in the towel and give up trying to push beyond it.

The culture of an individual

Each student is a culture unto themselves. How will we  explore that culture as it relates to effectively building a relationship with them? Some examples of what makes up the culture of an individual: Country of origin, race and ethnicity, religious background, parenting styles that shaped them, generational influences, abilities and disabilities, personality traits, gender and sexual orientation, political leanings, thinking styles, values and beliefs, as well as style and tastes.

Doing away with my agenda

How my agenda actually breeds a distrust that is nearly impossible to overcome. Teens have an innate ability to smell an ulterior motives like a fart in a car. Our approach must be genuine and sincere. For years youth ministries have been guilty of pulling a bait-and-switch on our prospective students. With this current generation, who long to belong before they come to believe, we must place a higher value on authentic friendship than on conversion experiences. So often when kids are coerced or harassed into believing something they may not be ready to believe, but do so to stay connected to the community. All we end up with then are faux disciples engaged in shallow compliance to belong. Generation Z will not stick around for that and consider it a betrayal to their values to pretend for our sake.

Checking our personal bias at the door

Often our personal biases impact how well we connect with others, especially those different from us. Let’s just all be honest together and admit that we have them. There are certain students we are drawn to. These kids are similar to us in lifestyle and values. The flesh is typically drawn to that which is familiar and often the path of least resistance. I just want to acknowledge this and say that it is alright. It’s perfectly normal. Which is precisely why we must be vigilant about our unconscious biases, because they will hinder us from reaching kids that are different from us. I’ll never forget when I came to this awareness. One day a friend, who was black youth pastor from a neighboring church said to me, “Your youth group kids look and sound an awful lot like you.” At first I thought that might be a compliment but after contemplating this for a minute I realized I had only been homogeneous group of students that looked like, talked like, and valued the same things as me. I had not helped these kids become more like Christ, I had made them more like Chris. This was not a reflection of the Beloved Community that God longs for and I became aware that my unconscious biases played a part in the development of our youth community.

Finding common ground

Discovering shared experiences, dreams, fear, and failures. Humans are amazingly unique yet, very similar. We all have the same intrinsic longing inside, the same fears and dreams. If we think about it, we actually have more in common with each other than different. This shared experiences can knit us together in powerful ways. Imagine a group that longs for belonging committing to radical hospitality for all students in their community. I honestly believe you couldn’t keep kids from coming to a place like that.

What is being said without words

What story are they telling with their clothes, hairstyle, and nonverbal communication. This goes both ways, from their non-verbals to our non-verbals. For every person we meet, there is a story unfolding that we know nothing about. If we can lay down our agenda and simply learn to listen, they will tell us everything we need to know about them. Everything from their clothing choices, music, make up, to their behaviors, attitudes, and non-verbal communication will betray their want to secretive about the hurts and hopes they carry. The discerning youth worker will master the art of listening. Maybe this is less about what we have to say to the student and more about how we are fully present to them.

By doing these things, we increase our influence over the students we serve and they are more likely to choose to follow in the Way of Jesus, not because they were coerced or manipulated to do so. Instead, they will choose Jesus because that is what we have modeled to them.

May you speak louder through your actions. May your capacity for listening grow. May your discernment to see and hear the cries of our students increase. And may they know Jesus more because of you.

National Youth Justice Awareness Month October 2017


On September 30, 2015, President Obama issued a proclamation recognizing October as National Youth Justice Awareness Month. There are approximately 50,000+ youth in detention centers modeled after adult prisons. Overcrowding and ineffectiveness continue to plague the juvenile justice system. Reform is needed. If you are interested in leaning into this conversation, here’s a video to get you started, along with a discussion guide.

DISCUSSION GUIDE for Childhood Interrupted

VISIT CAMPAIGN FOR YOUTH JUSTICE for more resources

OR CONTACT THE HOPE DEALER for to schedule a training/workshop on working with youth in the criminal justice system

After Text Message Case, Words Matter Even More


We’re excited to announce we have a new content creator to focus on parenting issues. For years we have tried to serve parents of fringe kids or parents on the fringe and we are fortunate to have Patti Gibbons join our writing team and to share her hard won wisdom with all of us. (Click here for Patti’s bio)

Her first post is an important one and addresses a growing concern among parents. Take a few minutes to read it and share your thoughts with her. She would love to connect.

After Text Message Case, Words Matter Even More

By Patti Gibbons

Two teenagers meet while their families vacation in the same place. A friendship develops and the teens discover their homes are relatively close, about an hour apart. They connect on social media and exchange texts and messages about their lives, their families, their problems. Though they rarely saw each other in person, they called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend.

That all sounds pretty normal these days, right?

Pervasive use of technology and social media allowed this relationship to develop as the teens supported one another through family struggles, serious personal issues like depression and eating disorders, and the ups and downs of teenage life.

But, this is the beginning of a story that ends in a charge of involuntary manslaughter. The weapon? The words typed into those messages.

As parents and adults who care about the lives of our children, that is a stunning statement. The words of one teenager to another were found to have made her responsible for his death by suicide.

This turns up the heat on the conversations about technology use directly, and tangentially about social media, cyber-bullying, privacy, and even the First Amendment. It should give us pause. A long pause.

On June 16, 2017, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter, now 20, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter following a trial that revealed that she, then a teen, engaged in what prosecutors called “wanton and reckless conduct” sent text messages urging Conrad Roy III to take his own life at age 18. She has not yet been sentenced as of this writing.

Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz decided the case in a bench trial, saying, “Ms. Carter’s actions, and also her failure to act, where she had a self-created duty to Mr. Roy, since she had put him into that toxic environment, constituted, each and all, wanton and reckless conduct.” [NPR]

In her texts, she urged him to act on his suicidal ideation, “You just have to do it,” one text said. After his death, she organized a fundraiser in Roy’s name, presenting herself as an anti-suicide advocate, posting on Facebook, “Even though I could not save my boyfriend’s life, I want to put myself out there to try to save as many other lives as possible.”

It is clear from the accounts presented at trial that Carter and Roy each had troubled histories with depression and other mental health concerns about which they shared with one another openly. This situation turns on both the words she said and the actions she failed to take. [New York Times]

As parents and adults who care about them, what can we take away from this case?

First, we can be diligent in teaching our children that the words they say matter and that they will be held accountable, perhaps even legally, for what they say. From this case, in particular, we learn a new limit to the First Amendment right of free speech. Not only can we not yell fire in a crowded theatre, we can’t encourage a person to take their own life.

Second, we can be diligent in communicating to our children that they, along with each and every human being, has intrinsic worth and value. There is no person they will ever meet in person or interact with online to whom harsh, demeaning, insulting words need to be said, whether we like them or agree with them or not. This is especially true for social media where there is a harsh and pressured teen culture of comparison, evaluation, and judgement. This is contrary to the prevailing culture online today, even among adults. Perhaps we can all grow this way?

Third, we can culture open dialog with the children in our lives about using their online presence for good. Talking to our kids about finding positive words to use to influence the world, be more authentic, and impact their friends in ways that give life.

A Report on Bullying by a 12 Year Old


Chloe is a 12 year old (nearly 13 now) 7th grader from Central Illinois. She wrote this amazing piece on bullying. It’s such a powerful and insightful paper and it’s written by a tweenager.

Have you ever been bullied?

In this paper, I will tell you about the effects of bullying. Being bullied is terrible. There are a lot of different forms of bullying. Some forms include physical, emotional, cyber, and sexting. Sexting can be a form of bullying. It is one that is common but no one really talks about, but can still have the same effect as cyber bullying.

There is a lot of bullying in schools. School is where a lot of bullying starts. One effect is not being able to learn what you need in life because you stop going to school because you were being bullied. Another effect is depression, anxiety, drug use, and even suicide (Effects of Bullying, 2017). Usually if you are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender), you get bullied more. If you are LGBT, people treat you like you don’t exist. Usually they will try to hurt you if you are LGBT. You could also not be able to sleep because you are worried about being bullied at school the next day. Being bullied could lead on to drinking and taking drugs, and then you could die from an drug overdose.

Cyber bullying is where people get bullied the most today. People who get bullied on social media will be more likely to have depression (Effect of Bullying, 2017).  Sexting is also a form of bullying. Sexting affects how you look at yourself and could lead to bad self esteem. Poor self esteem is when you think you are ugly, dumb and you say bad thing about yourself. Sexting is when you send a nude of yourself and then the person you sent it to sent to all his/ her friend and then they kept sending it on and on then they would begin to tell stories about you, your body, or your behavior. And then you would have bad self esteem because of what people said about your body type. Sexting could also lead to anxiety because you try to starve yourself because of how you look at yourself or how you think others look at you. Some people even take pills that say it will make them skinnier but actually can’t. You can still die from a drug overdose if you take a lot of those.

The biggest effect of bullying is suicide. There are 4,400 death per year because of bullying. One of the most common suicide death are cutting him/herself, and taking drugs to die from a drug overdose. Another effect that leads to suicide is depression. When  someone suffers from depression, they tend to think everything is sad and you feel lonely. 10-14 year old girls will be at a higher risk of committing suicide study have shown (Bullying and Suicide, 2017).  Also, people who get bullied or have depression may take drugs because they think it will make them happier, but that can and will lead to a drug overdose if you keep taking them.

Bullying is a real problem. We need to put a stop to it. The suicide numbers will go up each year if we do not put a stop to it. People who are LGBT, an outcast, or people with disabilities should be treated equally. No one should be bullied because of who they are, they are all human beings, then they should be treated the same way as everyone else. And not just them, NO ONE should be treated like that. How as a nation or school or anyone, can we put a stop to bullying?

 

Thirteen Reasons Why Discussion Guide


WOW! In just a week’s time, Thirteen Reasons Why has become the most watched series on Netflix of all time. That’s a whole lot of teens watching and talking about the same thing at one time. The internet has been a buzz about whether or not they should be watching this show. The show is raw and can be VERY TRIGGERING to an adolescent that struggles with any of the content matter, not to mention the mature nature of the show (language, bullying, sex, rape, and suicide).

Regardless of our thoughts of the show, teens are watching it and we (adults) must be prepared to help them process the issues addressed in the series. This guide is simply that, a guide. We do not have an agenda of writing a comprehensive guide for this complex show and the complex issues it strives to address. We will also give suggestions on how to handle to the more sensitive moments of the show to reduce risk to the students watching or talking about it.

There is a leader’s guide that you will hopefully find useful. This particular guide will explore the show from a faith-based perspective but you need not adhere to a particular faith tradition to use the guide. We also attempted to provide solid clinic information to direct you and the student towards professional help if needed.

The authors are Melissa Rau, a long time youth ministry veteran and Chris Schaffner, also a youth ministry veteran and counselor. We will release these as they are completed. We’d love your feedback so don’t hesitate to contact us with your thoughts or questions.

Thirteen Reasons Why Leader’s Guide

Tape 1 Side A

Check out our RESOURCE PAGE for discussion guides for each episode. New guides are uploaded every other day.

Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why Has The Teen World Buzzing


If you haven’t heard about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why you’ve been living under a rock. It’s all anyone is talking about right now. This series is based on the Jay Asher novel of the same name. This story centers on Hanna, a teenager who takes her own life due to a series of events. She leaves behind a series of cassette tapes to explain what led to her suicide and the role others played in driving her to that point. Here’s the goodreads.com summary:

The #1 New York Times bestseller and modern classic that’s been changing lives for a decade.

You can’t stop the future.
You can’t rewind the past.
The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.

Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.

Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.

The series is not for tweens. It’s definitely for a more mature audience and should be discussed to help the students process what they’re seeing. This is a realistic expression of the rawness of teen life so there’s quite of bit of language, mature content, implied sex, rape, self-injury, and suicide. The book and the series aims to address the difficult issues adolescents face daily and it will be hard for parents and adults to watch or to believe life can be like this.

The topics addressed in the series have long been the focus of Conversations on the Fringe. Here’s a list of links to the topics explored on the show that we’ve written about:

Suicide

Depression

Bullying

Self-Injury

Dating Violence

Sexting

Look for more resources in the next couple weeks on 13 Reasons Why. We’ll be interviewing students, releasing a discussion guide, and will continue to explore themes addressed in the book/series. If your kids aren’t watching this already, they are talking about it daily with their friends that have seen it. Use this opportunity to lean into the difficult issues your teens might be facing but are often so hard to talk about.

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