Kellie Cosby is a public administration graduate student in the political science department in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University. She is participating in a summer internship with Bridge Builders Alabama, a dynamic two-year program that works with students from public, private, parochial, and home schools. It works to develop high school students into future leaders who will lay aside individual, social, economic, and cultural differences to work for the benefit of all.
Part of the Bridge Builders mission is to create leaders who will “…lay aside individual, social, economic, and cultural differences to work for the benefit of all.” The organization works toward this goal by creating a space where high school students can come and freely voice their opinions on issues like racism/stereotypes, poverty, etc. Last week the Bridge Builders staff facilitated a week long conference for junior high school students. The students were diverse in ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status. They were also referred to the program by their school’s faculty for demonstrating leadership qualities.
Through working with this organization I have learned that there are many challenges that occur when developing future leaders; however there were two challenges in particular that I noticed. First, a lot of the students have “type casted” ideas of they think a leader is. Usually, they interpret a leader as being an assertive, outspoken, type -A individual. The problem arises when students who are naturally introverted, observant, or type B try to remold themselves into the traditional stereotype of a leader. They go through inner conflict trying to eliminate the qualities that make them unique in an effort to replace those qualities with the characteristics that they assume a leader “should” have. When the light bulb in their minds finally went off and they realized that not all leaders are the same, their world was turned upside down… for the better of course! Once they understood that there are different leadership styles, the students became more confident and motivated to cultivate their personal leadership type.
The second challenge to creating new leaders is what I like to call the “deconstruction phase.” A lot of students came to the conference with inaccurate and preconceived notions about other groups of people. Encountering students who had these prejudices was very difficult for me because all I could think about was that these 15-16 year olds did not come up with these ideas on their own. Most of them did not have enough life experience or experience with other ethnicities, religions, classes, etc. to formulate any type of prejudice or hate. Students who had these prejudices acquired them through learned behavior from their parents and/or guardians. These students were always the ones who had difficulty gaining understanding from the leadership exercises and discussions. Their prejudices were definitely handicapping their experience. Before they could become fully engaged in the process, they had to open themselves up and deconstruct all of the inaccurate, derogatory and sometimes hateful things that they had been taught. Watching students have the courage to step out of their comfort zones and challenge the negative ideas about what they had been taught all their lives was the most inspiring thing that I have ever witnessed.