Shane McCarty looked out at 200 high-achieving teenagers and asked them to envision a better world.
“Imagine if we looked around and everyone was helping each other all the time. What would that world look like?” he asked.
A month after graduating from Virginia Tech in spring 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, McCarty was on stage at Radford University, speaking to high school students from the Virginia Governor’s School Program in the humanities while working as a research assistant at Virginia Tech.
McCarty, who was due to enter Virginia Tech’s industrial/organizational psychology program in August 2011, spoke alongside a professor and several undergraduates from Virginia Tech’s psychology program. They urged the audience to participate in a nationwide movement called Actively Caring for People that is designed to bring out the best in people.
In a two-hour presentation, followed by additional sessions on later days, they explained the movement in detail. Members wear or carry green, silicone wristbands while keeping an eye out for people going beyond the norm to help someone else. They approach those people, thank them, hand over wristbands, and encourage them to pass the bands along to others who do nice things.
The movement’s roots are in a technique Alumni Distinguished Professor E. Scott Geller developed to encourage safe behavior in industrial workplaces. He estimates that tens of thousands of wristbands have been given out over the past 15 years at safety conferences where he has given keynote talks.
In late 2008, McCarty and several of his friends at Virginia Tech, some of whom were active in student government, were trying to come up with ways to promote a positive social climate on campus. They learned of Geller’s method and applied it to their fellow students.
“I think it serves to kind of reinforce the university motto,” said Hunter Bradshaw, referring to the ideal of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) which is promoted throughout Virginia Tech. A native of Fredricksburg, Va., who is a senior majoring in political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Bradshaw is one of several resident advisors who used the wristbands in residence halls.
Like the wristbands themselves, word of Actively Caring for People movement has spread far beyond campus. Students involved in the initiative spoke at the National Collegiate Leadership Conference at the University of Arizona in 2010. Efforts are under way to incorporate Actively Caring for People as a nonprofit and expand to other universities.
“It’s very exciting to see other people embracing this movement,” said Joey Zakutney, who graduated in May 2011 with a bachelor’s in marketing and a minor in psychology. He estimates he met 50 new people while handing out wristbands during his senior year.
Members of the Actively Caring for People movement at Virginia Tech designed a program for lower grades to reduce bullying by reinforcing positive behavior. The program has been adopted by nearly a dozen elementary or middle schools.
Students at those schools filled out surveys designed to measure if the program improved the social climate. The results have been encouraging, said McCarty, who is tracking the program’s effectiveness in reducing bullying as part of his research.
Colvin Run Elementary School, part of Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, introduced the wristbands in January 2011.
“I think it struck a chord with our students, and would at any school,” said Stephen Hockett, the school’s principal. He said he planned to continue the program in the 2011-12 school year.
He said one of the traditions at Colvin Run is to have a new stained glass window made each year and to hang it prominently in the cafeteria.
“This year’s window is actually going to have an image of two green bracelets sitting on top of each other,” he said, adding that Actively Caring for People “has become part of our language, part of our school.”
McCarty, Geller, and others involved in Actively Caring for People say they hope the movement reach many more schools. Geller said he was particularly excited at the opportunity to speak at the Governor’s School summer seminar for the humanities because it was attended by the type of energetic, high-achieving students who could promote Actively Caring for People in their own school systems.
“This is special [for us], because you are future leaders,” Geller told those students. “I want you to think of yourselves as teachers – in an actively caring culture.”
Watch this video to learn about the Actively Caring for People movement and meet some of those involved.
The Actively Caring for People movement’s process improves social climates by drawing attention to intentional acts of kindness, which typically get less reaction than infractions.
“In psychology we call it social proof,” explains Virginia Tech Psychology Professor E. Scott Geller. “When people see others doing something, it becomes more relevant to them. It becomes normative behavior.”
Brandon Carroll helped start the Actively Caring for People movement at Virginia Tech. He earned his bachelor’s in applied economic management in 2010, but still tries to give at least one wristband away each day.
“It takes just five to 10 seconds to make someone’s day,” Carroll said. “The irony is that it will make yours, too.”
Psychology Professor E. Scott Geller said his students’ dedication to promoting the Actively Caring for People movement inspired him to create a scholarship named after the initiative.
Before turning 60, Joanne Dean-Geller, who is married to the psychology professor who came up with the Actively Caring for People concept, set herself a goal of giving away 60 wristbands in as many days to people who performed acts of caring.
Each green wristband has an identifying number and people who hand them out or receive them are encouraged to share their stories at the Actively Caring for People website, which also has more information about the movement.
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