Tina Owen and her Alliance School have garnered a lot of attention lately. Recently I read their story in TIME Magazine. Delighted with what I read and surprised to see Tina and Alliance are in Milwaukee, the place I called home for a decade, I reached out to her. As the founder of what is being billed as the first and only “bully free, safe zone” school in the world, it is easy to see why Tina’s story is one of success. She promptly responded to my compliments and graciously accepted my request for an interview with lgbtSr. Alliance is a small, charter school of the Milwaukee Public School System that opened in 2005 with a goal of providing a safe and accepting environment for all students; a place where it is okay to be black, white, gay, straight, gothic, Buddhist, Christian or “just plain unique.” On October 21 this year, Alliance was awarded the Wisconsin Charter School of the Year Platinum Award.
RR: Overall, Alliance is known as the first anti-bullying charter school out there and it is getting a lot of press as such. Has press been a good thing or bad thing for you? Reading your mission, I see that Alliance is so much more than this. How would YOU position it in the media? In the educational community? In the world?
TO: When I was in the process of starting Alliance, I avoided the press completely. I really just wanted to focus on doing what we were doing for kids and not worry about the media. I was also concerned that the media may focus on the gay-friendliness of our school and that might cause us to get negative attention, and since our goal is to be a safe place for kids, I figured it would be best to avoid it. Then I got a call from a local reporter for a small, neighborhood newspaper. She said she was going to write a story whether I spoke to her or not (and she didn’t sound too friendly about it!). I wanted to make sure she got the right story, so I decided to answer her questions. It turned out to be really positive story about our school and our mission, and within days other newspapers had picked up on the story, and I started getting phone calls from people around the world. The phone calls haven’t stopped since then, and it’s actually been a really positive experience. More often than not, what I hear from people is how they wished there would have been a school like Alliance when they were growing up and how grateful they are for the work that we are doing.
What I wanted her to know, and what I want the media now to know, as well, is that Alliance is a place for all students, not just LGBT students and not just students who have been bullied. It’s a place where these students can come and be amongst peers who accept and encourage them, and it’s a place where the adults study best practices and put them into place, so that we create a place that’s safe and accepting for all. What I also hope that people know about us is that we do a lot of work in the community to teach others about the effects of bullying and how to implement peacemaking practices at their schools and community organizations. So Alliance is not just a school. It’s a school with a mission of making a difference in our students’ lives and changing the dynamics in other schools at the same time, so that someday all schools can be safe and accepting places for all students.
OUT IN THE REAL WORLD
RR: There are bullies all around us, at all different places and ages in our lives. Alliance provides a much needed safe zone, for sure. Is there any part of your mission at Alliance, to train students for the “real world” when they step out into at the end of the day or later in life?
TO: Our students deal with the “real world” every day. They still go to the grocery store, go to churches, walk in their neighborhoods, have jobs, and so on. Really, most of the real world is not anything like high school. In most other places, people would not participate in the types of bullying that go on in schools, and schools are the places where students can’t get up and leave. You can stop going to church. You can go to a different grocery store. But you can’t stop going to school.
Also, I think we are teaching our students how to be change agents in the world. They are going to be able to graduate, get jobs in leadership, and make sure that the world is a little bit better for all those who come after them.
RR: You faced discrimination of sorts when you were “outed” as a teacher and you went on to create your own safe environment at Alliance. Some say Alliance promotes separatism. Do you still feel bullied, in a way, by the naysayers out there, including those “experts” interviewed in PEOPLE and TIME who question the purpose of Alliance?
TO: I’ve never really felt bullied, just misunderstood at times. Most of the people who respond are responding to the question “Is it okay to separate the gay kids?” If that was all we were doing, even I would question it. But Alliance is a model of what’s possible when you use very intentional practices to create community and when you give students the tools to address bullying as a community. The nay-sayers don’t know who we really are or what we really do. I would love for them to come and visit the school, because they would see that it’s not what they’ve imagined, at all. I think if they did, they’d be really anxious to take what we’ve learned and help pass it on to others.
OUT AND OLDER
RR: Have you heard stories or witnessed bullying of lgbtSr’s? My ire goes up when I hear, “Look at that old queen!” Many say we regress to childhood as we grow older. Do you think it is as challenging for gay seniors out in the real world? And is it harder or easier for seniors to deal with bullying?
TO: I haven’t personally witnessed or heard stories of bullying of LGBT seniors, but I am sure that it happens. I think there has to be a lot more building of intergenerational connections, so that adults and young people get to understand each other better. For example, over the past two years our students have been running a food pantry for low-income senior citizens in our neighborhood. They wrote the mission, designed the logo, and developed the delivery system as a class project. Each week they deliver 240 bags of food to the seniors. When the students first started the program, they were afraid of the seniors and the seniors were afraid of them. We even had a local therapist come in and do a special presentation for the students, so that they would have an understanding of some of the things that the seniors might be experiencing. This helped to build a lot of understanding. Now, the students and the seniors interact with each other frequently at the bus stop and in the community. They even come to our holiday parties and picnics. One of the coolest days for me was when I heard one of the senior women lean over and say to a group of her friends “See. I told you kids are nice. You just gotta give ‘em a chance.”
RR: As a parent yourself of an Alliance student, what role do older people have as parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts in helping those bullied and to create a safer world? How might we help you with your mission?
TO: I think the most important thing people can do is continue to spend time with young people, even when they’re loud, obnoxious, or rude. Don’t give up on them, because they’re testing us to see if we’re going to stick around. And we should also remember what we were like when we were children. Most of the things that kids are doing today aren’t much different than the things we did when we were kids. They need to be held accountable for their actions , but they also need to be loved and cared for. At Alliance, one of the things the teachers do every year is go Christmas shopping for every student in the school. We buy each student one small gift that shows that we know something about each of them. We know that many of our students would go without anything if it wasn’t for the gifts we give them, and we want to make sure that every student knows that he or she is loved every day of the year, but especially on those days that stand out.
The other thing that adults can do is model patience, learn mediation techniques, and meet with young people to get their ideas. The needs are probably very different in each community and one of the best things adults can do is ask young people “How can we help?”
THE WORD IS OUT
RR: You looked to the Harvey Milk School as a model. Do you hope for Alliance to be a model for other similar schools? Is that part of a mission you are currently implanting?
TO: I hope that Alliance will be a model for other schools because its model would be great for anyone. It’s such an amazing place because we looked at the philosophies and the models of so many other great thinkers and education leaders. I would be honored if people who were starting small schools used Alliance as a model, and it would be even better if schools that exist already could look to Alliance to learn some of the best practices in addressing bullying.
RR: With calls coming in every day to you to be a part of Alliance, how do you decide who is in the most need? What are your criteria for acceptance?
TO: We are a public school, so we have to accept all students who choose us. We give prospective students a tour and tell them about the mission of our school. If they feel like the mission is a good fit for them, we enroll. We can accept up to 175 students each year.
RR: Are you refining and redefining who Alliance is as you grow? For instance you added a much needed middle school? The press has also purported that you also gave faced bullying WITHIN your school, how do you adapt to that?
TO: We are always growing and changing to meet the needs of the changing world. For example, this year every one of our students is enrolled in at least one online course, because this is an expectation in colleges now. So all of our teachers had to be trained in leading online instruction, and all of our students are now learning a new technology. The world seems to be changing more rapidly than ever before, so we have to be quick thinkers and adaptable professionals. So I imagine that we will always be refining and redefining who we are.
RR: Are there programs and schools out there for the bully? Programs that effectively change or remove the “bully” in us?
TO: I think that what Alliance does works for the bullied and the bully. There have been students who came to Alliance and thought that it was going to be like their previous school where everyone laughed when they picked on someone. But instead, when they say something harmful, the other students stand up for the student being picked on or the student doing the picking gets ignored or frowned upon. It doesn’t take them long to realize that you’re not going win any popularity contests by being a bully around here. You are more likely to get popular by being a great mediator, so that seems to be what students strive for.
RR: I myself have deferred the bullying/discrimination I have experienced by transferring my pain to others. I see it in the youth that are in my life. A gay child picks on an obese one or a “hick.” How do we prevent and work on that?
TO: Paulo Freire wrote about the phenomenon of the oppressed becoming the oppressors and I have seen students start to move in that direction. But because I am aware of the psychology behind this kind of action, I can talk to them about it and remind them of what it felt like to be on the other side of that bullying.
TIMES TO CELEBRATE OUT LOUD
RR: Did you honor Matthew Shepard in any special way this year? Do you have “special” holidays and remembrances unique to Alliance?
TO: We have our Christmas/ Holiday party every year.
On the last day of school every year, we host the Alliance School Peace Fair. We have a race, and a picnic, and the whole school celebrates another year of being together.
And we do have one remembrance. The year that we opened, we had student named Tocarra who was a trangender student that everyone loved. She was everyone’s “mama” and “sister” and “auntie” and she just welcomed everyone. In the middle of her senior year (her first year at Alliance) she died from heart complications in the middle of the night. More than 100 students took a bus to Chicago to attend her funeral. She was so well-loved. Every year, at graduation, we give out the Tocarra Wilson award to the student who best represents the ideals of Alliance. We have six agreements that we created as a community when the school opened, and every year at graduation we announce the name of a student who lived out these six agreements all through high school. Here are the six agreements:
2. Keep a positive reputation- We must represent ourselves well.
3. Leave it better than you found it.
4. Respect everyone’s differences, we’re all equal.
5. Be committed to each other and to Alliance by respectfully offering encouragement and listening to each other.
6. Be here on time, every day, for every class.
On behalf of the lgbtSr.com community, thank you, Tina!