From war zones to private schools: What 75,000 youth taught me about bullying

As a youth motivational speaker, I have been speaking to youth across the globe since I was a teenager myself. In the past 18 years, I have directly spoken to over 75,000 young people in 18 countries on three continents. When I first started speaking overseas with my 1,000,000 Youth Campaign, I was not sure how the message of how I as an American motivational speaker was going to be received overseas. What I soon learned is that, when it comes to the issue of bullying, the term embodies many different scenarios but the overall problem is the same—our young people are looking for acceptance and want to be told that they were validated at birth, as Oprah Winfrey says.

There’s the young girl I spoke to in a Congolese refugee camp who had undoubtedly suffered the same brutal experience of rape as the ones she described to me that happened to her friends. As she told me about how she or her friends had been sold by their mothers for $0.25 or how she has to bathe in the same water where other women wash out during their menstrual cycles, she told me five words that I would never forget: “We are condemned to die.” I learned that bullying takes on an entirely new meaning when you’re a refugee.

There’s the time I spoke at a high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. After my presentation, a young girl who had the most beautiful smile throughout the presentation came up to me in tears. She began telling me about how her uncle raped her and this was the first time she felt comfortable talking about it to anyone. She was more at ease talking to me, a complete stranger, than anyone in her family of community. I learned that in some cultures, bullying takes on the form of women being sexually abused in some way and forced to suffer in silence because they will be ostracized from their own community if they speak.

There was the time I spoke to women at Westville Prison in Durban, South Africa. One woman recited a poem about being alienated in prison because she has AIDS. She pleaded with the women for them to understand that she was their sister too and should be picked out and picked on. The hug she gave me that day was not a hug of appreciation. It was a hug of desperation—desperation to be accepted by someone and not bullied for an unintentional consequence of a sexual encounter that she did not describe.

There are too many examples to mention during my travels across the United States but few stand out. There was the one homosexual student at a school in Pennsylvania who stood up before the entire school and pleaded with them to accept him for who he is. This was one of the few times I was happy to see someone else on stage get louder applause than me (speakers sometimes have egos too). There was the West African student in a DC private school who asked that people stop making fun of her based on stereotypes of Africa from television. There was the Muslim student in Minnesota who expressed her frustration of being bullied in the form of constantly being called a terrorist and was being given hell because of her hijab. These instances always bring me back to my own days as a student in Boston where I was often beaten up and called harsh names like “African booty scratcher” or “African bush boogie” by students while teachers watched in silence.

These young people from extremely different situations have taught me one thing about bullying: every young person, like every adult, wants to have an opportunity to just be free being who they are. Young people who are bullied, just as those who are bullies themselves, just want to feel love from someone. It is the abandonment from community that leads to many of them harming themselves and maybe even harming someone else. We may not be able to stop a war in a foreign country or make every young person on every occasion feel like they are OK just as they are, but what we all can do is use what little time we have with our young people to plant a seed that they are fine just as they are and that no condition is permanent—it gets better.

You may not be able to validate a young person as a speaker like myself, but maybe you can do it with a smile. You may not be able to implement a bullying prevention program in your school tomorrow but you can pass on an encouraging word to that student today. Across the globe, our children are the same. They require and desire the same type of love most of them received when they passed through their mother’s womb and were placed on her stomach. They need to bond. They need to feel as though they are a part of something. They need you. They need me. They need each other. They need community. They need people to be upstanders and not bystanders to their plight. We could make a serious dent in incidences of bullying across the globe if, embracing this philosophy, we become proactive and not reactive.