Thursday, October 04, 2018

Wednesdays at Michael's by Diane Clehane

Lunch with Anti-bullying Advocate Ross Ellis

Diane Clehane and Ross Ellis

Talk about timely. Today I was joined by Ross Ellis, CEO and founder of Stomp Out Bullying, the leading national nonprofit “dedicated to changing the culture for all students by raising awareness around the need to develop a society focused on kindness and inclusivity.” Quite the tall order these days, don’t you think?

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and also marks Stomp Out Bullying’s 13th year as a national organization. What started out as a passion project for Ross has become an amazing force for open dialogue and positive change among students and adults nationwide committed to fostering civility and kindness in schools and online. With a small staff in New York City and personnel in Arizona, Brooklyn and Long Island, Stomp Out Bullying’s programs have positively affected the lives of thousands of children – as well as parents and educators looking for a way to reach them.

The proof is in the numbers. One out of four children has experienced bullying. Nine out of ten LGBT students experience some form of harassment. Ross told me Stomp Out Bullying has had over 10 million visitors to their website. The organization has helped 100,000 students and saved 2,000 lives through their HelpChat Line. According to their website Stomp Out Bullying, through their various support networks has helped save a total of 6,000 lives. “We have gotten 32,000 emails from kids and parents on a whole host of issues looking for solutions and strategies,” she told me.

Ross has always swung for the fences in her efforts to raise awareness and has had many home runs in the process. On Tuesday night, the Empire State Building was awash in blue (the color of the anti-bullying national initiative) in support of Stomp Out Bullying’s work that began as “Blue Shirt Day” but has been since renamed World Day of Bullying Prevention. Other buildings around the country that “went blue” included Houston City Hall, the Wrigley Building in Chicago as well as the Santa Monica Pier in California. On the first Monday in October, students, organizations, communities, and individuals “go blue” together as a worldwide statement against bullying with millions of people participating across the globe. To kick off this year’s program, Ross was a guest on WPIX interviewed by Tamsen Fadal on Monday to talk about Stomp Out Bullying’s initiatives (which also ran on Facebook Live) and has also been featured on AOL Build.

With all the negativity and astonishingly bad behavior we have seen permeate the culture in recent times (much more on that later), Stomp Out Bullying has ramped up their efforts to become more vocal and visible in reversing this deeply upsetting development. “This year, we were driven more than ever to help communities, youth, students and society realize that what we really need is to change the culture from one of cruelty to one of civility,” said Ross between bites of her chicken paillard kale salad. “I never want to see another child in pain,” added Ms. Ellis.

By creating partnerships with celebrities and organizations that recognize the importance of Stomp Out Bullying’s mission, Ross has made amazing inroads in gaining national visibility at a time when companies are overwhelmed with solicitations to support charitable causes. A Wrinkle in Time star Storm Reid did a PSA for the organization as did US Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez (who is also a global ambassador) and writer-producer and LGBT rights activist Dustin Lance Black.

The New York Jets have been “amazing partners,” said Ross. In August, the team hosted the third annual Jets Tackle Bullying Educators Symposium at MetLife Stadium co-sponsored Municipal Credit Union which featured a panel of experts (including Ross) Dr. Jeff Gardere, Board Certified Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor at Touro College; Ira Levy, attorney and Board member, STOMP Out Bullying whose son had been bullied in school, Anthony Harmon, Assistant to the President of the United Federation of Teachers and football legend Tony Richardson. Educators who attend are invited to stay afterwards to see a game. “We have a waiting list of people for this event,” Ross told me.

Several of the team’s players have also worked closely with her to help raise awareness including Jonotthan Harrison (“He’s adorable.”) The Jets are also willing to lend all-important financial support to the cause. There will be a check presentation ceremony on the field from the Jets’ organization to Stomp Out Bullying at the October 21rst game. Ross knows how valuable the organization’s support has been. “I’m very blessed they came to us.”

Ross has also created the “Upstander Project” which has been implemented at tristate area schools where principals select a middle or high school student to recognize as an “upstander” who is a force for kindness in their respective schools for several weeks each spring and fall. “Kids and teens want to see kindness [in their surroundings] and they’re just not seeing it,” said Ross.

One of the steps towards changing that, she explained, is fostering understanding and acceptance of different cultures. To that end, Ross created National Cultural Week last year which took place in second week of April. Nick Cannon hosted a panel live-streamed to 110 schools which included Josie Jay Totah, formerly known as J. J. Totah, the 17-year-old transgender actress who appeared on the Disney Channel series Jessie. The event was so successful, Stomp Out Bullying is currently planning to repeat the event in 2019. “When you have a kid who is Muslim, you don’t want other kids calling him a terrorist. By teaching kids about other cultures, you begin to foster an understanding that can prevent that type of hurtful thing from happening.”

While it’s heartening to hear that children are receptive to messages of inclusivity and kindness, what to do about the shockingly bad behavior of some very high profile adults? Especially one in particular. When I asked Ross how Trump’s actions have affected the conversations she has had with kids and adults, she told me she can’t comment directly on anything he’s done explaining, “We’re a children’s charity and we have to remain non-partisan.” But, she allowed, adults behaving badly does have an effect on the children who witness it. “It does matter. It’s very bad to have kids see adults says and post negative things. This has to stop.” No argument here.

When we were talking (off the record) about the Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Ross commented that she implored her friends on Facebook to stop and think before putting anything out there for the world to read. Regarding all the mean-spirited comments on both sides she said, “It doesn’t matter who you like or don’t like, don’t post it.”

So what’s next? Ross is currently working on a book with Dr. Gardere “about empathy” and is currently fielding inquiries from companies looking to serve as national sponsors for Stomp Out Bullying. “We need a media partner,” she said. If you’re interested, we’re happy to pass on the message.

Next month will mark the second annual Block It Out Day, an initiative that takes place on the second Wednesday in November. The idea which came to Ross while she was being interviewed by Vice magazine. “They were asking me about cyberbullying and I made it up on the spot.” And the idea stuck. “It’s a day where kids block out all negativity – deleting and blocking out negative posts and ask friends and family to do the same,” she said. According to Ross, 2.5 million people “blocked it out” last year and she’s hoping that number increases this year.

As we finished up our lunch, I told Ross that it was encouraging to hear about good news for a change at such a dark time. “I’m trying,” she said. “People need to understand bullying is not a rite of passage.”


Seen & Heard Around the Room

Ed McDonald and pals on Table One … Mickey Ateyeh and two lovely ladies enjoying Michael’s cauliflower with capers and pine nuts and black truffle pizza on Table Two … Jim Abernathy on Three … Herb Allen and Steve Rubenstein in the corner on Table Four … Dr. Gerald Imber, Andy Bergman, Jerry Della Femina, and Jeff Greenfield at the usual perch for their weekly boys’ lunch on Table Six … Master showman Henry Schleiff, who is, in case you didn’t know, Group President of the Travel Channel, Investigation Discovery (ID), American Heroes Channel and Destination America. I’ve known Henry since he turned Court TV into a pop cultural phenomenon and made stars out of Nancy Grace, Dan Abrams and many others. Trust me, there is no harder working man in cable television.

 And There’s More

Marshall Cohen on Table 15 … United Station Radio’s Nick Verbitsky raising a glass with some suits on Table 16 …LAK PR CEO Lisa Linden (Long time no see!) with Julie Tighe, the newly minted president of the NY League of Conservation Voters. Busy Lisa is also the vice-chair of the organization … Producer Joan Gelman on Table 20 … The fabulous Alexandra Lebenthal passing the time on her iPad while waiting for her lunch date to arrive on Table 21 … PR maestro Tom Goodman at his favorite spot in the dining room, Table 25 …. Kliger Enterprise’s Janice Orefice Dehn and Mark Cooper talking business in the Garden Room.

A Special Goodbye

Last week, one of my favorite Michael’s regulars, Liz Wood had a farewell lunch at Michael’s before she decamped from the east coast to her new home in Alabama. She was feted by ‘The Bar-ettes’ Kira Semler and Vi Huse at my usual spot, Table 27. We all met many years ago sitting at the bar at Michael’s (one of the best people watching spots during lunch) and while we didn’t see each other often, forged a friendship that has come to mean a great deal to all of us. I was sorry to have missed this very special lunch due to circumstances beyond my control, but I did want to take this opportunity to say that I will miss seeing Liz’s bright smile at 55th and Fifth and truly appreciate the kindness and generosity of spirit she has shown me throughout the years. Good luck Liz! 

I’ll be on assignment for the next few weeks so I will be back at Michael’s next month. See you then!

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