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June 14, 2012

Anti-bullying group asks students to ‘Sing 4 Change’

Upcoming workshops train teens to make a difference

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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Anti-bullying group asks students to ‘Sing 4 Change’
Youth Under Construction members Natashia Dobbins, 22, of Pontiac, and Craig Stemas, 19, of Royal Oak, auditioned for “America’s Got Talent” in March and created an anti-bullying song and PSA. Those who sign up for the Show Zone workshops later this month will put together similar productions.

Bullying continues to be a problem in schools, but the tide may be turning, with more and more people saying, “Enough.”

That’s what David Sawicki and his wife, Lisa Lapides, are hoping. The Royal Oak couple, longtime anti-bullying advocates, are encouraged by such recent events as buzz generated by the documentary “Bully” and by the hundreds of thousands of students nationwide who stood together last month as part of Defeat the Label’s “Stand 4 Change” campaign against bullying.

Still, “One day will not change the world,” Sawicki said. “This needs to be a sustainable impact.”

And so Sawicki and Lapides are adding their own effort to the mix: Youth Under Construction Show Zone, a performing arts workshop at Gospel Life Church, 1042 E. 12 Mile. The workshop, which is not affiliated with the church, spans eight sessions: June 26 and 28, July 10, 12, 19 and 26, and Aug. 2-3. Each session is two hours. A lifetime membership to the program is $250 and includes the opportunity to become a paid presenter/facilitator.

The program is for students ages 8 to 18 who have some prior background in vocals or dance. This could include having been part of a choir or dance project.

The students will team up, about 15-20 per workshop, and produce public service announcements with a positive message: Do the right thing, respect others and think before you act.

It’s all put on by YoungPop.org, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit co-created by Sawicki, producer, and Lapides, CEO. Once called Pages to Stages, they toured schools with the music group Youth Under Construction, winning four national awards in the mid-2000s.

The concept started 20 years ago, when Sawicki penned “Keep Peace in the Hood” in 1992. Over the years, he wrote a variety of songs promoting positive values of self-motivation and getting along with others. Around 10 years ago, in 2002, Sawicki recorded the album in a studio, including two anti-bullying anthems: “Opinions (I’ve Got Mine)” and “Much Betta,” spelled as they say it in New England, Sawicki explained.

This became the Youth Under Construction movement. In 2008, Sawicki and Lapides co-founded Pages to Stages, incorporating Youth Under Construction in a multi-media mix of live concert performances, projected video clips and motivational speakers that inspire students in school assemblies lasting a brisk 45 minutes long.

The assemblies leverage the power of pop culture to connect with the students, and in its heyday, before restructuring its focus, Pages to Stages would hold one assembly every seven to 10 days, all over the state from here on up to Marquette.

Now rebranded YoungPop.org, the latest campaign, tentatively titled “Sing 4 Change,” came about when Youth Under Construction received an invitation from the “America’s Got Talent” TV show. Natashia Dobbins, 22, of Pontiac, and Craig Stemas, 19, of Royal Oak, stepped forward to audition for the show in March, performing a 90-second mash-up of “Opinions” and “Much Betta.” At press time, they were still waiting for a response.

In the meanwhile, Sawicki took the 90-second mash-up and decided he could do even more with it. He worked with Youth Under Construction to retool it into an extended two-minute PSA, shot at Community Media Network TV in Troy.

Now people can see the anti-bullying video on CMN, YouTube and YoungPop.org. It’s the starting point for the idea of students creating more and more PSAs in future workshops, helping to spread the message in a multitude of ways.

And it’s a message that needs to be heard, because the problem won’t go away unless people listen. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a child is bullied every seven minutes, and Educa tion.com says one in seven students is either a bully or a victim of bullying. Meanwhile, the National Association of School Psychologists says 160,000 students stay home from school every day for fear of bullying.

“Those statistics are only the reported statistics; it’s even worse than that,” Lapides said. “We saw early on doing this work, it’s a real epidemic, this closet bullying. The school’s a warzone; the bus is a warzone — even the recess and cafeteria. There is so much cruelty going on in those systems where not enough adults see or do anything about it.

“Those situations breed that kind of bullying, and let’s face it, being bullied is very shame-based,” she said. “I remember I was bullied when I was in sixth-grade, and the last thing I wanted to do is tell my family, because I was embarrassed.”

The problem is compounded by numerous factors, Lapides said. New technology means new ways to communicate, which means new ways to bully, and it’s worse than before, with bash campaigns on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. She observed that society, in general, seems to be increasingly geared toward confrontation, with a bullying tone to pop culture about body issues, wealth, academics and more.

“You can see it,” Lapides said. “And these kids aren’t born to be mean. It’s they’re feeling a level of pressure all around them. This is something imprinted in them from an early age: comparisons, competition, put-downs in the name of motivation and inspiration. It’s hard.”

She said it’s important to stand up to bullies, to fight the temptation to mask one’s unease laughing at the bully’s mean behavior. Laughing at it only feeds the troll. If enough people look on the bully’s actions with disdain, suddenly the bully is all alone — and powerless.

But that takes tremendous courage. Communication between victims and authority figures at schools need to be improved, Lapides said, so that bullies can be exposed by witnesses in a safe, anonymous fashion. But even then there’s the problem of the bully assuming his victim tattled and seeking retribution. Lapides admits that there is no easy answer, but schools need to work on solutions.

Last December, the state Legislature said it feels the same way, passing Matt’s Safe School Law, named in memory of Matt Epling, a student who killed himself in the face of relentless bullying. It gives all Michigan schools six months to develop anti-bullying policies. They have their work cut out for them, as children are masters at concealing both their bullying and their suffering.

YoungPop.org could always use help in their fight against bullying. People are asked to contact YoungPop.org or keep an eye on the site for upcoming developments.

“We’re looking for volunteers, for facilitators, because we see a growth spurt taking place over the next couple months,” Sawicki said. “We want people who want to make a difference.”

To learn more about Show Zone, call (248) 545-4411 or email youthCD@gmail.com. Visit the group’s website at http://YoungPop.org and http://YoungPop.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.