In April of 1999, two high school seniors walked onto the campus of Columbine High School in Colorado with semi-automatic weapons and proceeded to kill 12 of their classmates and one teacher.
The tragedy sparked incredible action and lasting change 1,000 miles away in Santa Barbara. That summer two local therapists and educators – Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freedman – experimented with a mix of social-emotional learning and creative expression to show that it is much harder to harm someone if you know who they are.
The pair and some very underpaid staff led 20 teenagers through a series of exercises that brought the group closer together. AHA! – Attitude, Harmony, Achievement – was born.
With the novel mission of inspiring communities to feel safe, seen, celebrated, and emotionally connected, AHA! has – over its 22 years – steadily equipped teenagers and educators with social-emotional intelligence to dismantle apathy, prevent despair, and interrupt hate-based behavior.
In 2008, Carpinteria High School was experiencing conflict between Latinos and White surfers. “The parents recognized that there needed to be some type of intervention,” says AHA! co-founder Jennifer Freed.
That year, Freed, Freedman, and AHA!’s growing team of facilitators introduced a 10-week “seminar” that touched every Carpinteria High School freshman. AHA! staff visited freshman classrooms weekly, delivering a curriculum that focused on emotion management, prejudice reduction, empathy, celebration of difference, and compassion. Through small group discussions and exercises, AHA! facilitators knitted classrooms and campuses together to improve climate and reduce ostracism and bullying.
The results were stunning, as they have been everywhere AHA! has set up shop since. Suspensions went down by 70%, students’ feeling of hope jumped up by 50%, and test scores increased by an average of 11%.
“The only thing that breaks down prejudice is getting to know people,” Freed says. “It’s all about getting to know the person next to you instead of staring straight ahead.”
In two decades, AHA! has brought social-emotional learning to 25,000 students throughout Santa Barbara and Carpinteria middle and high schools, while training 2,000 educators and supporting 2,500 parents.
Every year, the organization steadily provides in- and after-school programming to more than 2,000 young people, while training upwards of 350 area educators and scores of bilingual parents and guardians.
The result: armies of young people equipped with the social and emotional intelligence to dismantle racism while creating harmony in their communities and inside themselves.