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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

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How Rape Culture Is Implanted In Boys At An Early Age


Just turn on the news and you will see stories from the #metoo and #churchtoo movement. This movement is driven by large numbers of men and women (mostly women) who are reporting sexual misconduct among powerful people in politics and Hollywood. It is starting to feel like a reckoning that has been a long-time coming.

As a father of three girls and a son, I am concerned with the culture they will have to navigate and the influence of that culture on their understanding of power, gender, and equality. Unfortunately, as research is revealing, our children are being indoctrinated in rape culture ideas before they turn five. Let’s look at some of the ways this happens:

1. “Go Give Everyone A Hug Goodbye”

How often do we force young child to display affection to people in their lives? Sometimes it’s a familiar person and other times it’s someone less known to the child. Yet, we push them into the arms of someone even if they have no desire. What we teach our children when we do this, is their personal and internal boundaries do not matter.

2. “Boys Will Be Boys”

When a boy makes an unwanted gesture towards someone else that is aggressive or sexual in nature, we often minimize their behavior and chalk it up to “boys being boys”. When we reduce their behaviors to genetics they cannot be held accountable for their actions. This type of entitlement can grow into unwanted sexual advances in which the young man expects sexual favors in exchanged for his attention, financial investment, and time sacrificed for the object of his affection.

3. “Dress Modestly”

School dress codes are notorious for perpetuating the idea that boys/men are weak-willed in their sexual urges and the girls/women should be hypervigilant, keeping themselves appropriately covered at all times, so as not to trigger their male peers. This idea also tells young girls that they are not in charge/have no power over, and that men define the relationship the can have with their own bodies. Another damaging concept from the modesty movement is girls who dress less modestly clearly invite sexual advances.

4. “He Must Like You, That’s Why He’s Picking On You”

Can we please stop telling our young girls that when a boy in her class hits her, pulls her hair, or calls her a name, it’s because he secretly “likes” her? This is so clearly damaging and sends the wrong messages to both the girls and the boys. Girls can learn to believe that aggression and love are inseparable, and as that plays out into the teen years, intimate partner violence  has the potential to increase as well.

The idea that if a young man loves someone he must violently protect or prevent her from leaving. This leaves our young men so emotionally fragile and gives them a ready excuse for their behavior, “I couldn’t help it, I love her”. This does not extrapolate well into adulthood.

5. “Relentless Persistence Is Romantic”

Lastly, the notion that love is persistent is damaging. It can seem innocent and passionate on the surface but it has more insidious roots. Relentless pursuit of another in the face of opposition from the one being pursued is called stalking. It is coercive, manipulative, and can lead an eager young men to challenge the idea that “no means no” actually really does mean “No”.

Our children a constantly receiving messages as they grow that shapes the way they interact with peers of all genders. Let’s be sure we are not intentionally or unintentionally laying the wrong foundation for how they connect with one another.


chrisChris Schaffner is a counselor and veteran youth worker. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Conversations on the Fringe Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Conversations on the Fringe. 

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.

NEW CotF Initiative for 2018


Race and Racism: A Visitor’s Guide to Deconstructing Whiteness

We are excited about our new initiative for 2018. We have been piloting a workshop/conversation for white Christians looking to begin a dialogue in community/churches on race and racism. It is unfair to ask People of Color to do the hard work of educating us on issues related to race and racism so we have developed a one day training for white Christians who hope to lean into this difficult topic, who want to listen and learn how to become better allies to People of Color and begin the process of building the beloved community.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION

If you and your church feel stuck and are unsure where to start, this day long training will give your community the tools it needs to start their own journey towards healing and racial reconciliation.

What We’re Watching


What We’re Watching is our new monthly review of film and screen media. We hope to share potentially useful and powerful media to discuss with others in an attempt to gain understanding of the world around us. We hope this is a helpful endeavor. Let us know if there are resources you’ve discovered that are worth sharing.

From her childhood bedroom in the Chicago suburbs, Ala’a, an American teenage girl, uses social media to coordinate the revolution in Syria. Armed with Facebook, Twitter, Skype and camera-phones, she helps her social network “on the ground” in Syria brave snipers and shelling in the streets to show the world the human rights atrocities of a dictator. But just because the world can see the violence doesn’t mean the world can help. As the revolution rages on, everyone in Ala’a’s network must decide what is the most effective way to fight a dictator: social media or AK—47s.

A few of us had the privilege to meet Ala’a at the Faith Forward Gathering in April 2017. She was humble, yet so strong you could sense it when in her presence. This moving documentary will inspire youth to be brave in the face of dangerous situations.

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

What We’re Watching


What We’re Watching is our new monthly review of film and screen media. We hope to share potentially useful and powerful media to discuss with others in an attempt to gain understanding of the world around us. We hope this is a helpful endeavor. Let us know if there are resources you’ve discovered that are worth sharing.

In Audrie & Daisy, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk employ powerful visuals to tell the true stories of two adolescent girls, ages 14 and 15, who were raped by classmates and, after reporting the incidents, were tormented in person and online via social media. One teen survives her ordeal; the other takes her own life due to the responses of others. Parents and those who work with you in any capacity can learn a lot from this documentary, including the importance of teaching about consent and digital citizenship.

Audrie & Daisy also highlights how finding the strength to speak out can often change the trajectory of an assault survivor’s life and how social media can be a healing tool, not just an instrument of bullying.

Audrie & Daisy is currently showing on Netflix and is approximately 95 minutes long.

 

Addressing the Racial Climate in your Youth Group


When you spend time with youth, their parents, and your volunteers – wherever you are in your community – be alert. Are you hearing put-downs and slurs? Pay attention to the tension between the different groups of students you are working with. There are early warning signs that there is racially driven tension among adolescents. Left alone or ignored, these attitudes and behaviors can create the perfect storm for larger problems.

Safety is of the utmost importance. Are direct threats being made? Are there imminent threats? These situations required an immediate and well thought out response. More direct behaviors indicate that there might be a problem with your church’s climate. Is this the type of ministry you want? Is this the type of ministry your students, parents, and volunteers want? Ask them and listen closely to how they respond.

Make sure your students, staff, and volunteers know the proper reporting system if and when they hear problems. Make this an expectation and set up an efficient reporting system, like an anonymous comment box, text or email, or a specific staff member. After those problem are reported, there must be proper follow-up.

Here’s a list from the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) of things to consider when present in your ministry, church, or community:

  • Casual Pejoratives: Do you hear certain words used regularly in a derogatory manner? That’s so gay. That’s retarded. Are the words “bit**” or “ho” casually used to label female students? Challenge the use of these slurs and work to establish and maintain a climate where casual slurs are uncommon.
  • Skits and Plays: Skits and costumes can convey bigoted and stereotypical messages: the “day-laboring Mexican,” students dressed as “rednecks,” “gangbanger/thugs,” people in blackface. Holiday plays and skits are often steeped in stereotypes and bigotry. Set expectations beforehand about appropriate costumes and cultural sensitivity. Discuss the inappropriateness of caricatures or disturbing representations that are rooted in bias and bigotry.
  • Marginalized Students: Engage students who appear to be left out of group activities, during game time and group discussions or in other ministry settings. Watch for changes in social clustering and ways in which students align. Check for signs of hostility, depression or a marked change in behavior. Reach out to the student’s parents or guardians as appropriate. Alienated students – either as individuals or in groups – are more susceptible to bias-based bullying.
  • Student Recognition: How does your church recognize student achievements? What do those achievements say about your church’s values? What messages are sent to students who don’t receive recognition? Overemphasis on achievement can lead to a sense of entitlement while reinforcing the dominant culture as well as contribute to feelings of frustration or inadequacy in others. Who is spotlighted and who is ignored? Athletes are often at the top of the food chain in many settings.
  • Staff Discussions: How are staff/volunteers/adults talking among themselves when outside of ministry settings? Are the adults making negative comments about the “kids from the trailer park”? Are they telling casually bigoted jokes? Do they define their students by a label, such as; the gay kid, the nerd, the gamer, the black kid, etc.?
  • Your Own Perceptions: Pay attention to the comments or complaints you automatically dismiss or discount. Also pay attention to your automatic thoughts about particular students. Often, your first thought is a reflection of unconscious biases. Explore those thoughts with an open mind and willingness to become more self aware and learn from others.
  • Don’t Forget Other Spaces: You will find yourself wherever students gather, such as; schools, gyms, parks, etc. Follow the general rule, “If you see something, say something”.

Every person in your church – from the worship leader to the incoming 6th graders to teenagers on social media – should understand the climate you are trying to cultivate in your spaces. These ideas are not about politically correct but are our best attempt to create spaces where everyone can belong to the community of God’s people and participate equally in kingdom service.

5 Things You Can Do To Combat Racism In Your Organization

  1. Call it out, EVERY TIME! – Don’t let it slide. By being consistent in addressing blatant racism and microaggressions, you communicate that it is unacceptable. Even if the individual(s) responsible don’t have a change of heart, at least the behavior becomes restricted and controlled.
  2. Start seeing color – The notion of being “colorblind” is ridiculous. There are obvious differences; from skin tone to cultural practices. Don’t just notice them, VALUE and VALIDATE them all. By being colorblind, we reinforce the idea that the universe will remain centered on whiteness since it is the dominant culture in most places. What we are saying is ALL I SEE IS WHITE!
  3. Stop being an ally – People of Color are not people in need of charity. By saying we will be allies we are saying we will come to their rescue. Instead, just be a good human. We can align ourselves with marginalized groups of people but we need to keep our savior-complex in check.
  4. Do not put this on the kids to fix – Kids are the

I leave you with this Benediction from Bishop Woodie White:

And now, may the Lord torment you.

May the Lord keep before you the faces of the hungry, the lonely, the rejected and the despised.

May the Lord afflict you with pain for the hurt, the wounded, the oppressed, the abused, the victims of violence.

May God grace you with agony, a burning thirst for justice and righteousness.

May the Lord give you courage and strength and compassion to make ours a better world, to make your community a better community, to make your church a better church.

And may you do your best to make it so, and after you have done your best, may the Lord give you peace.

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