Teens move from strangers to friends at Giant Step Teen Conference
DETROIT — What happens when you bring together 189 teens from across metro Detroit for a day of icebreakers and open discussions?
A little bit of magic.
The Giant Step Teen Conference motto of “Inclusion, Harmony, Acceptance” comes alive. Despite their fears and awkwardness -- teens get to know each other. Strangers become friends. “Teens see what they have in common. It’s that simple,” said Giant Step volunteer Richard Thomas. “Once you get to know a person, you see how much alike you are. That’s how you build respect and friendship.”
In the 39 years since Giant Step first started, thousands of ninth and tenth graders from urban, suburban, public, private, charter, parochial, magnet and home schools have attended the free annual conference. More than 25 schools sent students this year. At check-in, each student was assigned to a discussion table with students from other schools. They came face-to-face with different races, cultures, and backgrounds. “The students are wary at first. All those people they don’t know,” said Cheryl Deep, conference coordinator for Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute (MPSI), host of Giant Step.
Trained facilitators encourage students to talk about topics that matter to them. This year, they covered social media, bullying, immigration, parents, conflict, friendship and more. As the minutes passed, students became engaged and the energy in the room rose. “Getting to know someone you might not encounter in your everyday school or neighborhood can open attitudes for life,” said Hannah Schacter, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Wayne State University and Giant Step’s faculty advisor.
Toward the end of the conference, each table sent a reporter to the microphone to share what the group had learned. Comments included:
“When we talked about historical events in our lives, we all agreed that Covid had the most impact and required the most change.”
“Getting to know people isn’t as tough as you think it will be. Everyone deserves a chance.”
“It really helps to know you aren’t the only person experiencing something hard.”
“Everyone is unique, but we all have things in common. We’re all humans.”
“The bonds we build today will help us build our world tomorrow.”
The event fits well with Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute’s mission to improve the well-being of children and families. Alissa Huth-Bocks, Ph.D., director of MPSI, is new to the conference this year but proud of the institute’s decades of hosting it at WSU. “We realize there is a lot going on around the world right now. It’s hard to take it all in and understand it sometimes,” she said in her opening remarks to the students. “An event like Giant Step gives us an opportunity to build relationships and respectful conversations. Now more than ever, we espouse our motto of Inclusion, Harmony, Acceptance.”
The Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development promotes and improves the development, health and well-being of infants, children, youth and their families through research, education and outreach. The institute is part of Wayne State University, a premier urban research institution offering more than 370 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to about 30,000 students.