Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Teens Talk About Racism

Well, it's 4:44 p.m. on May 25th. I am soaring right now because "Teens Talk About Racism" was such an amazing experience.

TTAR, as we call it, is a safe forum for teens where they can challenge the pervasive stereotypes that we live. What are our identity groups and what benefits and challenges do they offer us? How can we share music, social justice and love?

Nine years ago, community organizer Rori Kanter and life-long social justice worker, Theadora Lacey approached me about organizing a program for teens. They had already spent a year in the process and had, in fact, hosted their first event at the Central Unitarian Church on a Sunday afternoon. Despite much intense preparation, they had about 15 youth participants.

Here's Theadora Lacey

The next year, Rori approached me and asked if I would like to get involved. "Yes!" I said.

Quickly, I involved my students from my school's newly formed "Multicultural Task Force," who provided music, energy and a whole lot of leg work. We partnered with Fairleigh Dickinson University, who offered us wonderful space. That first year, we had over 100 students from area schools participating!

The conference has built over the years and it relies heavily on teachers and counselors in each school who gather the students and prepare them for youth leadership. Students come prepared to sing songs, dance and share in a joyful community experience.

Today was amazing!

As students were entering the Wilson Auditorium, they were greeted by music from the student band, "The Francs."

Noelle Staudt, from St. Anthony School, sang The Star Spangled banner. Next, Eddie Kim, did a monologue he wrote himself called, "A Word About Tolerance." It blew us away!

Next, we were welcomed by Diana Cvitan, the Director of the Office of Global Learning. Diana really cares about this issue a whole lot and has done everything to be as welcoming as possible to our conference and efforts!

Elissa Bonito sang "It doesn’t hurt" with great feeling and energy!

Next, we heard from a youth panel - students who were either in college or graduate school.

Panelists included: Alfonso Carrion, Maya Gunaseharan,Brenda Rubenstein, Adam Walpert. Joe Murphy, the chair of Ethics at Dwight Englewood, moderated. Here are the bios of the participants:

Alfonso Carrion is a student filmmaker studying his craft at Emerson College. He recently won an EVVY for producing an outstanding promotional commercial for Boston's TD Garden Arena. However, he actively participates in several social justice organizations in and out of campus. His trip to feed the poor in a New York City homeless shelter has always been an unforgettable experience for him. He is very excited to be a part of Teens Talk About Racism and thanks everybody who participates in this life-changing event.

(Here are Alfonso Carrion, Diana Cvitan & Maryann Woods-Murphy)

Adam Walpert. Northern Highlands class of '05, Columbia University Class of '09 BA in economics, currently employed as a research staff assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia, will be attending medical school this fall. Adam's belief in social equality and cultural awareness have been woven into his life journey. He was one of the founders of the Multicultural Task Force of Northern Highlands Regional High School, which is active to this day.

Brenda Rubenstein is currently a graduate student in New York primarily interested in fighting for socioeconomic equality. As an undergraduate, she was a co-founder of HOPE (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere), an organization that partnered college students with homeless activists to rally for better treatment of the homeless in Rhode Island. As part of the Talent Quest program at her university, she lobbied for admissions equity. She is currently focused on equity for women in science. She got her start here with Ms. Woods-Murphy!

(Here are Adam Walpert & Brenda Rubenstein)

Maya Gunaseharan is a rising junior at Cornell University, in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She was active in social justice work during her years at Dwight-Englewood and has continued such work since she's been in college. Throughout high school she participated in TTAR and other similar conferences, in an effort to educate herself and others about the prevalence of diversity issues surrounding the youth of America. She is truly pleased to be here today, and wholeheartedly believes that through heart-to-heart dialogues, like the ones we hear at TTAR, change can and will happen.

Music from the Englewood Idols - "We are the world!" transitioned us beautifully to the next part of our conference. Here are the Idols pictured with their teacher, Judy Aronson!

Here the Idols are involving the audience in the song!

We then moved into break-out groups led by students from our participating schools. The point of the break outs was to talk about identities and how they have helped, challenged or enhanced our lives.

After a couple of hours of discussion/lunch, students came back and shared their reflections. One girl said that she had given her hair clip to a new friend and that she hoped that this new friend would keep a part of her forever. She said, "This was a life-changing day. Now that I have shared my stories, I know someone else is listening besides my journal."

One by one, students stood up and shared their testimonies of the day, their reflections and thoughts. They told what hurts, what uplifts them and how they can really be the change they want to see.

We closed the conference the way we always do at TTAR: We all sing "Lean on me" as we dance and sing together.

Lean on me
When you're not strong
I'll help you carry on!

Congratulations to all student leaders, to the teachers and counselors and administrators who made it possible for the students to participate and to all of the planning committee.

Rev. Carlton Eliott Smith, Central Unitarian Church, Mrs. Theadora Lacey,
Billy Bowie, Joanna Petritsis, Melynda Bowie, Ilene Gilbert, Kay Blair, Luis Merlo, Sally Gellert, Joan Whelan (webmaster www.teens-talk-about-racism.org), Joe Murphy, Joe Murphy III, Judy Aronson, Marsha Gundy, Lule Seltzer, Carlos Gonzalez, Iris Koonin, Mark Johnson, Shailja Rastogi, Cover Illustration: Rachel Lesser, Dolores Stasion – Global Learning, FDU

Special thanks to the Social Justice Committee of the Central Unitarian Church, in Paramus, who shopped for, donated and served all of the food at today's conference! We appreciate this focus on youth leadership and justice making! Students ate a nice breakfast and lunch due to these continued efforts!

Thank you to all who gave their time and energy to make the 10th year of TTAR a wonderful success!

(All photographs courtesy of the Office of Global Learning!)

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