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Beyond Inspiration: Helping youth feel their leadership potential

Someone asked me the other day about leadership. How can you get kids who really don’t see themselves as leaders, to become leaders? How do you inspire them?

Well, for me, I know inspiration isn’t the ticket. I have found myself many times listening to a talk and being incredibly inspired – maybe even amazed by the speaker. I can sit there feeling excited, moved, and churned up inside. I can be full of renewed ambitions and flooded with enthusiasm to be healthier, finish all my projects, and take the world by storm. Then 9 o’clock hits and I am eating chocolate and watching Netflix. Sigh. That inspiration didn’t last long. I wish it was so easy.

Inspiration Isn’t Enough

Audience cheering leader on stage The thing about us humans is that inspiration isn’t usually enough to create lasting change. Inspiration can help – it can let us know where we want to go and the types of lives we want to lead…but it takes more than inspiration to get us there.

I have seen schools invite inspirational speakers to rally their students. I have watched the audience and have seen their reactions. Usually the kids love it. They are often amazed, moved and cheering by the end. You can practically see the thought bubbles above their heads: “How could she do that?! How could this one person travel the world and make so much change?! How did she invent THAT?!”

Don’t get me wrong. This is a good thing. In no way do I think it is negative to bring in diverse, inspiring speakers to share their stories with youth – in fact, it’s AWESOME. It sets off light bulbs in the minds of our students – which we need! But we need more than the lightbulb. We need the electricity to continue to run through it so that it can keep shining long after the moment of inspiration has faded from memory.

Kids Need to Feel it!

Lots of kids leave these talks and are genuinely inspired by these amazing people. But – and this is critical – they don’t see how it relates to them. If a student does not yet feel or know she possesses leadership abilities, then the talk does little to support her in exploring and developing her own capacities, and unfolding her own gifts to share with the world.

Our identity has a huge impact on us. Who we think we are matters a lot. If we can help our students experience what is it like to try new things, to uncover and truly feel their own potential in new ways, their identity can expand to begin including the notion that they are, themselves, truly leaders. They need to feel it, experience it. It is simply not enough to inspire our students through speakers that they might not truly identify with. What actually works is when students are given opportunities to actively discover and experience their best selves, and know on a visceral level what this means.

That’s why at Dandelion, we use a two-pronged experiential method to develop our leaders:

1. Create. From Nothing. Every Single Class.

Girls creating outdoor design At Dandelion our students create something in every single class and share it with each other. They do not do this in an environment where they are told that they are “choreographers” or “dancers”, per se. They are not stressed about impressing an audience, or worried about how their work will be perceived. Instead, they are given creative tasks that build on each other. Over time, our students discover their creative potential, and develop comfort with pushing their own ideas about themselves and their capabilities. It just becomes natural.

We provide our students with different opportunities to see themselves and the world in new ways. We work indoors and outdoors. They experiment with fabrics, leaves, Jell-O, poetry, painting with their feet. It doesn’t matter whether what they create is “good” or “inspiring” to others. What’s important is that they do it and that the process itself is rewarding and fulfilling.

The practice of creating from nothing, every week, has a profound impact, reaching far beyond their dance and creative experience.

Our students begin to see what does not yet exist. They learn that they can create from nothing. They literally see that where there was nothing, something now exists. What was simply an idea in their own minds has transformed into something concrete right before their eyes, and they were the creative force behind it.

This powerful knowledge bleeds into the rest of their life experience. Doing this weekly, over years, creates a depth of experience to know – and even more importantly, feel – one’s capacity.

2. Don’t talk about leadership. Experience it.

At Dandelion, we do not wait for a girl to show us her leadership abilities before we see her and treat her as a “leader”. Our mantra is the opposite: we support every girl to experience leading as a means to discovering this capacity in herself.

Our facilitators consciously place our students into situations in which they can experience and feel their leadership, in ways that are carefully tailored to support each individual girl. Even for girls who are very shy, we find lots of little ways that create tiny openings for the discovery of all they are able to do.  

Child speaking on mic This could be a small thing, like asking a student who rarely shows any leadership initiative to lead something for one minute. She may be surprised by our ask, as she may have not seen herself this way; but because our classes are facilitated to ensure that all students feel safe and trust that they will always be treated with respect by their teachers and peers, she will be willing to try. She then gets to feel her ability to lead – even if only for one minute – and believe that she is capable of this new role.

These experiences allow our students to experience the feeling of being a capable leader. They get to both discover and practice sharing this new part of themselves in a supportive, creative community. And these experiences open up all sorts of new possibilities within them.

At Dandelion we believe in our students’ inherent beauty and ability. This belief matters. And the experiences we offer allow them to eventually know and feel this for themselves matters too. This is what sets the stage for new leaders to make themselves known to the world.

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