Chronicles of an Educator

3 ways OBS promotes DIVERSITY and ACCEPTANCE among the youth

9th Feb 2020
This story talks about a week where I was leading a group of students on a 5-day MOE-OBS programme. I was surprised to experience how successful the 5 days were in promoting appreciation and acceptance of diversity among the students. A success, I believe, attributed to 3 main design criteria.
A Typical Start
Groups of students from various school meeting each other for the first time on a 5 day MOE-OBS programme
That Monday morning started like any other Monday. At 08 15, all the Outward Bound instructors, donning their blue Polo tee, reported to the small office to listen to the latest operations brief.

At the same time, some 200m away, groups of 15 year old students were gathering under a white shelter. Students from at least three different schools were mixed in groups of 12 to 14. They awkwardly greeted their group mates as they shuffled into the compound.

"Nominal rolls are ready, nominal rolls are ready" shouted one of the standby instructors back in the small office.

That was the cue to take the nominal roll to check the participants' medical conditions. Once done, I made my way to the white shelter. Usually, as I approach the group for the first time, I will observe the behaviours of individuals as well as the group dynamics. I may be able to discern the shy from the extrovert. The natural leader from the followers. At times, even spot the troublemaker.
Meeting Fred
What do we do when we see someone being left out or someone deliberately not wanting to be included?
That Monday, Fred (fictional name) caught my attention. Fred was this giant boy. His entire right thigh had been tattooed and it was so well covered under his knee-length khaki shorts that you had to look carefully to notice it. He was keeping his distance from the group. His body language told me that he did not wish to mix with the group.

I later discovered that the other members of his group feared him. They heard rumours of his 'gangsters/fighting' activities even before meeting/knowing him.
The constant struggle
The whole week was a constant emotional tug of war with Fred. At times, he would be very participative and at other times, I had to make the whole group search for him as he disappeared.

I tried my best to facilitate his self-discovery and learning and I honestly thought that I did not make much of an impact on his life throughout those 5 days. That perception changed after I heard his last sharing.
The last Affirmation Circle
Participating in the last appreciation circle is a heartwarming moment before any group adjourns
It was day 5. We were starting our last affirmation circle before the group dispersed. Fred was being very talkative and disruptive. I wanted the group to have fond memories of their last circle. As such, I asked Fred to change his place and he decided to stand by my side.

We started the sharing anti-clockwise from the person on my right. Midway through the first person's sharing, Fred turned back and took a step out of the circle.

In my mind, I went "Not again! Come on dude, it's the last circle with your group mates. Can't you just wait another 5 minutes and you will be free."

I chose not to speak my mind. I gently put my hand over Fred's shoulder and gestured to him to join back. He did not protest. I kept my hand over his shoulder. As I was observing him from the corner of my eyes, I noticed his eyes tearing. I could feel his chest rising higher and higher as he listened to his group mates' heartfelt appreciations.

That is when I realised that moving away from the group was his coping mechanism to keep his 'wall' up.

When it was Fred's turn to talk, he said:
"Thank you guys for accepting me. It is the first time that anybody has accepted me for who I am. You guys did not look down on me."
Reaching out to more Freds
We can help the Freds out there!
I was shocked. This big tough guy just melted down and opened up to this group of strangers he barely knew. He only met them 5 days ago! For him to have said such a powerful phrase as being accepted for the first time in his entire life showed that the experience truly meant something to him. I am glad that, even though it took 15 years, Fred managed to realise that people around him do accept him as he is. The rebellious/out of norm behaviours were just symptoms of not being accepted by society.

The sad reality is: how many Freds do we have out there who do not get that chance? How many Freds are there who cannot fit in society's mould and feel out of place? What are we doing to reach out to them to make them feel appreciated?

We ought to work together to provide a safe environment where diversity is not only embraced but also celebrated. Three elements of our programme's design allow for that to happen.
1. Provide equal opportunities for people to shine
While school focuses pretty much on academics, our outdoor programmes allow people with various skills to shine. You have the people-person who can motivate the team when the morale is low. The reliable teammate who will know where the lighter is or who is holding on to the toilet paper. The chef who can cook an edible meal for the team. The visual and spatial person who can read the map effectively. The out of the box thinker who can solve the team initiatives quickly. The athletic teammate who offloads the weight from those struggling or the humorous teammate who lighten up the atmosphere.

The beauty is that everybody gets to shine! And at different times. The team can immediately feel the positive impact of each contribution. It allows individuals to understand that diversity is critical and needs to be celebrated.

Fred's ability to think out of the box to solve team tasks, as well as his care for the team quickly earned him their respect.
2. Provide a safe physical and emotional environment
Having people shine on different occasions is important but it can only happen if students can freely express themselves. I have seen students shy away from contributing their skills (when they are often the best in that specific skill) to the team in fear of being ignored.

Providing a safe physical and emotional environment is a very critical criterion which I would dare say forms the backbone of a quality experience.

At OBS, our trainers are trained to conduct safe activities that will bring the group together, bring down barriers, spot and address team issues and promote acceptance. Those scenarios involve complex dynamics. The fact that there is no one size fits all solution reinforces the need for such a solution.

At first, Fred was keeping to himself. I had to coerce and guide him into contributing his strength to the team. He slowly became more open and comfortable about it. In the end, he could do it without being nudged.
3. Remove the undesirable anchors
The last ingredient to make any intervention successful is to remove undesirable anchors - item(s) that could trigger or bring back a specific behaviour or state of mind. We safe keep phones (or any other distraction) at the start of the 5 days. At the back end, we also work with the schoolteachers to know which students should not be grouped together.

Those measures alone reduce the risks of 'relapse'. On the second night, Fred disappeared to look for his friends who were put in other groups. Since each group has a different schedule, he could not link up with his friends. We found him after half an hour of search. I sternly explained to him the implications of his actions before we proceeded for our nightly reflections. After an hour, Fred genuinely shared (without being prompted) that he felt remorseful for his actions and apologised to the group.

Having a synergy among various stakeholders (outdoor educators, teachers, parents and counsellors) helps in creating the best environment for the students.
It is time for a change
The way we do things has to change. We all know the saying: "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is 'less worthy' ". What the saying does not say is that the other animals will start to believe the same too.

At OBS, we are lucky to have a control over creating a safe environment where individuals can strive. But just for 5 days! Back at home or in school, we do not have that much of a control anymore. In the face of such uncertainty (or lack of control), a strong character foundation/education is needed. Maybe it is about time to include other aspects of character into the school grading system. Salem's school final report card contained elements such as (full list can be found here):

  1. Esprit de corps
  2. Sense of justice
  3. Ability to follow out what he believes to be the right course in the face of discomforts, hardships, dangers, mockery, boredom, skepticism, and impulses of the moment

It is not an easy task nor will there be any easy solution. That should not stop us from trying. We are all in the business of people development (whether we are a parent or an educator) and coordinating our efforts is our best shot at solving this ever evolving issue.

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