Sarah: Fostering inclusive environments in schools

Sarah and her team did not just start a club, they started a movement - a movement to change how her peers think about and interact with students with intellectual disabilities.
Source: Reilly Brooks

In a rapidly changing, interconnected world, changemakers strive for a mindset shift, or changing how people think about the status quo. Reframing how they see the world has a profound effect not only on their behavior and actions, but also of those around them. Sarah’s story highlights how challenging stigmas and disrupting norms at her school leads to invaluable friendships across classrooms.

Sarah Raza (17) always considered herself inclusive and supportive of others, regardless of whether or not the person had intellectual disabilities. However, after finding herself trying to avoid babysitting her friend’s autistic sister because of what Sarah, then 15, describes as subconscious fear, she had to take a hard look at herself and her actions. Through introspection, she recognized that neither she nor her school environment was as welcoming as she thought. Sarah was inspired to take action and transcend barriers across classrooms.

AWARE was born of that inspiration. “It's more than a club,” Sarah says. “AWARE is a movement.” AWARE unifies general education students and students with intellectual disabilities to combat stigma and foster friendships through everyday interactions, like enjoying lunch together in the cafeteria or attending a school sporting event together. AWARE’s impact does not stop at her campus. Sarah and her team of peers scale their organization by inviting students at other campuses to co-lead their mission.

As of 2018, AWARE launched partnerships with five schools and impacted over 250 students. Embracing technology, Sarah’s team is developing the AWARE App to provide resources on relationship management and effective communication for students engaged with AWARE’s programs.

It's more than a club, AWARE is a movement."

An advisory board comprised of business leaders and special education teachers mentor Sarah and her team to manage and scale their organization. Specifically, teachers ensure inclusive programming for AWARE, offering their expertise to maximize AWARE’s impact. Youth at other campuses take charge of their own chapter while co-learning and collaborating within AWARE’s network of schools. AWARE’s fluid team structure enables youth to be in charge, regardless of age or experience.

While Sarah is proud of AWARE’s growth, she prefers to focus on its impact, and the supportive, inclusive environment AWARE fortifies.. “I like to measure impact through stories,” Sarah says, noting that new friendships emerging from  AWARE offer all students new lunchmates, prom dates, and after-school buddies.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, Sarah is excited to continue witnessing the myriad of benefits from social inclusion as initiated and maintained by young people. Sarah feels that young people are uniquely situated to positively impact their schools, neighborhoods, and communities as agents of change. “The power to be a changemaker?” says Sarah, “I think everyone has got that power.”

Check out the AWARE team's T-Mobile Challenge video here

Caroline DelAngelo and Lucy Eills contributed to this story.

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