Following Inclusive Youth Leadership: Post Twitter Chat Reflection

Jamie Behymer, a co-chair of the Inclusive Youth Leadership Sub-Committee with the National YAC, shares her reflections about a recent #ProjectUNIFY Twitter Chat.

Phones in hand, Twitter App open, and ideas ready for sharing, the Inclusive Youth Leadership sub-committee met on Monday, January 13 to host the first-ever Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Twitter Chat!

 A Few Thoughts About the Twitter Chat

“Before Twitter I was on a lonely road; the Twitter Chat is the intersection that brings all the different cars, different people, different ideas flowing together,” James Kweon, an Inclusive Youth Leadership sub-committee co-chair, said.

“This was something monumental,” Clement Coulston, the Inclusive Youth Leadership mentor, said. “Youth are the leaders of today and through collaboration and reflection, we were able to foster an idea of a new social norm, inclusion.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 8.57.42 PMMembers of the Inclusive Youth Leadership sub-committee educated participants about Inclusive Youth Leadership and the Guidebook that supports it’s development, but also learned how social media can impact continued collaboration. With the sub-committee tweeting out questions using #ProjectUNIFY, conversations were easily accessible for participants and continue to encourage discussions with people from around the world.

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Twitter Chats are utilized to promote communication through stories, experiences, and resources, using 140-characters or less. “Youth” was the most prominent word throughout the evening, followed by “change” and “leader.” Whether it was an Adult Ally tweeting from Montana, or high school student in Washington, the Twitter Chat ignited ideas concerning the voice students’ have in society.

Karina Silva, an Inclusive Youth Leadership sub-committee member, closed the chat with:

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Her tweet, like many others, showcased the power of inclusion and acceptance, and solidified the notion that everyone can be an agent of change.

With 48 contributors and 475 tweets, the inaugural Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Twitter Chat surpassed the expectations of the Inclusive Youth Leadership sub-committee, I would love to hear feedback from participants in the future.  Click on the Storify below to review highlights from the chat and follow us @SOProjectUNIFY!

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Inaugural Special Olympics #ProjectUNIFY Twitter Chat!

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We encourage you to join the inaugural Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Inclusive Youth Leadership Twitter Chat on Monday, January 13 at 7:00 p.m. EST! This is an opportunity for youth and adult allies to engage in a conversation on changing social climate in schools and using social media as a form of reflection –  to celebrate past successes or gain insight on any challenges individuals have faced.

The Inclusive Youth Leadership sub-committee, with the Special Olympics National Youth Activation Committee, will be hosting the event and hopes to promote awareness of inclusion in communities across the country. To join the conversation, simply create a Twitter account and use the #ProjectUNIFY hashtag after all tweets and be ready for an awesome discussion!  Be sure to follow our Twitter Page, @SOProjectUNIFY.

Below is a resource that contains more information about Twitter and how to participate in the Twitter Chat. We look forward to all individuals that are ready to have their voices heard!


Age Isn’t a Predictor for Success

Clement Coulston and Kaitlyn Smith are members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee.  They were recently asked to co-author one of the 11 Practice Briefs, focusing on School Climate and Inclusion.  

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Often times when society thinks of “valuable contributors” to issues, discussions and insights, the first image that appears in their mind is one of a well-educated and experienced adult; very rarely is that intuition one of a young person. Youth are constantly told and often led to believe that they are “the leaders of tomorrow,” but what about today? Youth are the ones in the schools, collaborating with educators, and hold the power to make a change.

The magic of Special Olympics Project UNIFY® is the belief in young people to identify challenges in schools, co-create solutions, implement these strategies and reflect on its impact.  Young people of all abilities have valuable insights and can contribute innovative ideas, but we must re-orientate our expectations of how their talent can be best utilized.

The National School Climate Center (NSCC) has worked with youth leaders, like us, from Project UNIFY and has seen our potential.  With our extensive experience and interest in areas concerning School Climate and Inclusion, the NSCC asked us to author a Practice Brief encompassing our experiences, thereby providing strategies and practices that students, educators and the whole school community can further advance.

Below are some of our favorite excerpts from this 4-page Practice Brief. We encourage you to take a deeper look – the brief can be found in conjunction with other briefs on equity and shared leadership here:

Inclusion is a set of best practices and shared values that meaningfully support the diversity that each person brings to the school.

Students are the ones who have the power to alter the school climate in either a negative or positive way, based upon their perception of what a school climate should feel like. Students hold the power to make it either socially acceptable or unacceptable to unite with their fellow classmates who have differences.

At the center of Inclusion is the notion that diversity is an ever-growing phenomenon that evokes a need for the community to cultivate global citizenship in today’s students.

Making a Difference, in One Way or Another

David Osher is Vice President at the American Institutes for Research and an international expert on school climate, social emotional learning, and student support. Below David shares an interesting perspective about making a difference through school climate.


Schools are communities where everyone’s actions affect others.  So the question is not whether we make a difference, but whether the difference is positive or negative, intentional or unintentional, miniscule or large.

Schools are communities, and each of us is a member of that community. Community can be healthy or unhealthy.  Schools can make every last person feel:

  • safe (both emotionally and physically)
  • supported by others who have their back
  • included
  • valued by all and even cherished by some
  • respected for who they are
  • visible
  • invited or expected to contribute

Or the school community can make some members feel:

  • unsafe
  • vulnerable
  • excluded
  • unappreciated
  • rejected
  • invisible
  • uninvited or expected to observe not act.

What you do can affect each of these dimensions. 

Safety provides an example.  One thing you can do to help others feel safe and diminish their feelings of vulnerably is to think about how they feel and avoid things that embarrass them or make them feel exposed.  For example, students in a focus group told me how important it was for teachers to find out what embarrasses every one of their students and to avoid doing it.

You can also stand up when others are being victimized or teased or placed at risk—whether as individuals or as members of a group, and whether they are students or adults. When you stand by silently when someone uses the R word, bashes youth who are GLBT, or says derogatory things about people because of their racial, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic background or their looks and abilities, you may reinforce prejudiced behavior or contribute to others feeling vulnerable.

Individual acts are important, but they don’t directly reach out to all members of the school community.  Whether you are a student, a staff member, a family member, or a member of the greater community you can support policies, programs, and practices that ensure everyone feels safe, supported, included, valued, respected, visible, and expected to contribute.  For example in the case of safety, schools can:

  • Survey students anonymously to see if students feel safe and supported; disaggregate the data to see particular groups of students that feel less safe or supported; use this data to identify needs and plan interventions; and treat this information seriously – just like that treat standardized test scores.  You can promote the use of these surveys, take them seriously, and participate in planning that is based upon these surveys. For information about how to create, analyze, report out, and use surveys go to .
  • Implement programs and practices that enable students and adults to learn to understand each other and empathize with other people.  Examples of this include social emotional learning (SEL) programs that help students learn to manage their emotions and handle relations in a productive manner. Some of these programs include class meetings, which can be good ways of including everyone and giving all students a voice. Other programs use literature, history, and service learning. A good place to find out about these programs is . A good place to see them in action is
  • Support activities that bring people together such as gay straight alliances, Project UNIFY, and inclusive approaches to service learning that are designed to invite and support, not only the inclusion, but also the engagement of all members of the school community.

So there are many things you do and can do, both as individuals and as members of the school community.  Ideally, each of us will do both — with intentionality, persistence, and at a magnitude that will make a big difference.

Leadership: From High School to College

As you step down from the podium with your high school diploma in hand, you find yourself in an interim stage between adolescence and adulthood.  You feel as though you have arrived at Platform 9 ¾, stuck between worlds and ready to be carted off to a place perhaps just as magical as Hogwarts: college. While settling in on campus, so many things will change, but you must always remember that you are still a leader.  Everything you learned in high school and all the experience you gained will not go to waste; it will form the foundation of your college leadership.

With every passing year, you are given more freedom at the cost of responsibility.  High school allows you to act as independently as you may while still living under your parents’ roof.  Most youth leadership in high school allows students to form their own plans and carry them out under the structured guidance and supervision of faculty.  During this period, youth seem to be given a leadership permit—the wheel is handed over to them, but the adults still have a brake pedal installed in the passenger side just in case.  This allows students to develop their leadership skills, while letting adults take care of the boring work of forms and finances.

Transitioning from being a leader in high school to a leader in college may seem like you’re hitting the ground running, but it’s not as drastic as it seems.  At its heart, leadership at all stages is about inspiring people.  It’s true, there won’t be as much hand-holding and at times it may feel like the system is working against you, but pushing through all of that will not only make a name for yourself on campus, but foster your leadership ability in a way that you never before had the chance to.  You will be expected to work more independently, but even at college, there is always someone to reach out to for help when needed.  It is essential that you find the right people who will help you along your way, but let you work through your trials on your own.  College can be the best years of your life, but unlike in some high schools, you must always be actively seeking out opportunities to seize.

A leader is someone who shapes their community, so as you enter the realm of higher education, shape yours so that you leave it as a better place than when you first arrived.

‘BULLY’ Brings Media Attention to Bullying & School Climate

On March 30, the documentary BULLY opened in select theaters in New York and L.A (the film will be released throughout the U.S. and Canada in April). The film, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch (distributed by the Weinstein Company), is garnering tremendous media attention and has already begun to serve as a catalyst for conversation on the topic of bullying.

Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. BULLY brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families.

BULLY is a character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

While Special Olympics is not an official partner, nor direct endorser, of this film, we applaud the efforts of those who seek to create a safer, more accepting and respectful world for all.

Bullying is an issue closely connected to our movement of acceptance and inclusion that has been going on for the past 44 years at Special Olympics.

60% of students with special needs reporting being bullied compared to 25% of general education students.

Statistics like this demonstrate the severity of this issue for the specific population of students with disabilities. In March, the White House hosted a conference on bullying prevention. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, attended the event, representing the voice of those with intellectual disabilities and the mindset that it was time for a change.

Through efforts such as Spread the Word to End the Word, Project UNIFY® and Unified Sports®, Special Olympics has actively worked with youth, schools, educators, families and the communities to create climates of inclusion, respect and understanding. These initiatives encourage engagement, character-building and positive youth leadership, and are preventive mechanisms to discourage stigmatizing and abusive language and behavior.

The power of Unified Sports (where students with and without intellectual disabilities compete together as teammates) has extended beyond the playing field. In a 2011 survey, of Special Olympics Maryland high school Unified Partners who observed their teammates with disabilities being bullied or teased, 91% reported standing up for them! Through Unified Sports, we are takings steps towards more positive and inclusive school environments as young people establish friendships and recognize the value of ALL students!

As you begin discussing the topic of bullying in the classroom or with your friends, parents, children or students, we wanted to provide a collection of resources that will help as you begin working towards real change in school climate:

You can also join our conversations here on our blog or through Special Olympics and Project UNIFY social channels:

The Power of Project UNIFY

I recently attended a Project UNIFY Rally for Special Olympics New Jersey and Jersey City Public Schools. It was an energetic and wonderful atmosphere at the Yanitelli Center at St. Peter’s College. 40 schools were present and each was represented by 39 students. Each school put on a performance about respect and accepting all abilities. The performances that stood out to me – and really helped to energize the crowd – were done by Rafael de J. Cordero, P.S. #37, Nicolous Copernicus School, P.S. #25, Dr. Michael Conti, P.S. #5, Martin Center of Arts, M.S. #41, Anthony J. Infante, and P.S. #31.

The performance by P.S. #37 was a song about respecting people of all abilities and sevenstudents had letters that spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The performance by P.S. #25 was a song about being amazing just the way you are. The students from P.S. #5 dressed nicely and used body language in their performance. The students from M.S. #41 used the following slogan, “You respect me, I respect you … we are all beautiful people!” P.S. #31 performed the song, When you wish upon a star and focused on the acceptance of all abilities.

Dr. Michael Fowlin gave an entertaining performance that had a serious message for everyone in the audience about people with different abilities.  The mere feeling of energy and noise from the crowd filled you with excitement. It was a celebration of all abilitieswithin Jersey City Public Schools.

While I didn’t take any video, there was a great video blog done by My Autism Voice that shares some of the amazing performance from the Jersey City Schools Project UNIFY Rally:

If all state programs did an event like this, their school communities could benefit greatly – impacting not only on the students but entire school communities.

Of course there are a few things that need to be in place before such an event to occur. Based on the rally I attended, here’s a guide to putting on your own great Project UNIFY Rally:

  • First, you need the support of a school board so you can have full participation from local schools. You’ll also need a venue and funding to put on the event.
  • Next, each school would need to hold a competition to select which students would represent the school and perform for the event. Performances should be youth-led and focus on respect, inclusion, unity or acceptance. The performances should include students of all abilities.
  • A great tool to help schools plan for the rally is Get Into It, which helps teachers with explaining and teaching the different aspects of inclusion, acceptance and respect. Movies that Move is another great tool to use in preparation for a rally because it is a visual way for students to learn about respect, unity, and accepting all abilities.
  • Now bring all the various pieces together along with a great and energetic EMC and some VIPs and you have will have a fun, great and powerful Project UNIFY Rally. Also, make sure you recognized the Unified Sports teams from the schools as a way to show how sports and respect go hand in hand. Just remember to have a great and fun time.