Growing up in Baltimore City, Fred Watkins, Jr. remembers being bullied by his peers.
“Those negative feelings you experience as a child – loneliness and low self-esteem – don’t leave when you become an adult,” he says.
When faced with depression after a severe neck injury as an adult, Watkins turned to comedy to occupy his time and lift his mood. But when he started performing at comedy shows, those same stressors he felt as a young boy came back.
“Comedy brought up those feelings again,” says Watkins. “I felt really low self-esteem. But comedy helped me overcome those feelings, too. After I identified what caused me to feel that way, comedy became a good outlet for me.”
Laughter opens people up to learning something new, becoming comfortable with vulnerability and accepting hard truths, says Watkins. That’s why he established Lil’ Laughs, an anti-bullying mentoring program based at Watkins’ alma mater, Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School (MERVO). Lil’ Laughs uses comedy as a vehicle to build confidence and break down the cycle of bullying for middle, elementary, and high school students in Baltimore.
At MERVO, Lil’ Laughs will launch a 16-week after school program for freshmen to address self-confidence and inclusion, learn about comedy, and create an improv troop to create anti-bullying content, live skits, and student-led presentations.
Trauma experienced at a young age can often lead to acting out in school and bullying. For many students in Baltimore City, trauma comes as a result of living in high-risk environments – areas with high rates of violence or poverty. When schools lack the tools to combat the residual effects of trauma, all students, whether the aggressor or victim, become victims of bullying, says Watkins.
To start the conversation about bullying, Lil’ Laughs creates a comfortable and encouraging environment for students to express their feelings, share aspirations and learn how to work as a team. When kids can openly talk through their emotions, Watkins says it can build their self-esteem and grow their confidence to help the bullying come to a stop.
“It seems that youth aren’t open to engaging in conversations that make them uncomfortable or vulnerable. But when you introduce laughter, it makes everyday conversations easier to break down and talk through,” says Watkins.
Lil’ Laughs will facilitate 90-minute interactive session, called link-ups, in small classes with up to 40 students throughout Baltimore City Public Schools. Sessions are broken out into exercises in positive affirmations, inclusion, confidence and de-escalation all while emphasizing self-awareness.
Lil’ Laughs will also facilitate two-hour presentations where Watkins will interact with up to 150 youth. The presentations include performers, special guests and introducing students to resources, tools, experiences and steps to face challenges and embrace positivity. Lil’ Laughs plans to hold a minimum of 10 assembly-style sessions and 25 link-ups between 2018 and 2020.
Watkins will also launch a five-week long summer camp to engage kids in confidence-building exercises, physical activity, health and nutrition classes and comedic entertainment.
Because of the OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Watkins will be able to build a more sustainable program and maintain relationships with Baltimore City schools. “I’ll be able to create a more structured pipeline to continue the conversation with students when programming is over,” says Watkins.