Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Perceptions (What I Learned From a Bunch of High School Students)

Webster:  the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, 
the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization
Student:   how inside our differences, we are all the same

I knew when the students started arriving this was going to be a different kind of day. I could tell here was a different energy in the room, a special kind of excitement and anticipation.  I was right. On an ordinary Friday, at a school in East Nashville, I saw hope, compassion and unity in a group of extraordinary high school students.
My colleague, Eric Johnson, has been doing amazing work with his “Diversity Day” events for a while now. I've listened to him passionately talk about how inspiring the kids who have attended these events are, but due to scheduling, I hadn't had the opportunity to participate before this one. “Diversity Day” is a sort of cultural exchange program where a rural school and a city school send a group of students to spend the day together, to “walk in each others’ shoes.” At the beginning of the day, the two schools lined up in the middle of the gym. Then the students, one by one, walked toward the middle to meet their partner for the day. The pairs then stuck together for the entire day. The two schools involved this time were Jackson County and Maplewood. Maplewood had already spent the day in Jackson County, and now it was Jackson County’s turn to spend the day at Maplewood. In addition to Eric and I leading them through activities, the students ate lunch together, toured the building, walked the halls during class changes,  and attended a class with their partner.  
I wish I could describe every poignant moment, but there just isn't enough space. So, I’ll highlight a few. The first thing that struck me was the visual of them simply hanging out together. In the beginning of the day, they were encouraged simply to talk and get to know their partners. I didn't see any tension, anger, or much fear at all. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, poor, rich, rural, and urban, just talking, being with each other. Without the outside influences and noise they hear every day from the world around them, they were just kids. They were connecting.
Another moment came after lunch. We purposely divided them by the color of their eyes and treated brown eyes as if they were better than the others. They went to lunch first. We praised them. On the other hand, we made the others wait, and we talked to them as if they were second best. We then said that they were not allowed to eat with the brown-eyed students. However, once again, these amazing students rose to the occasion.  During our time of processing the activity after lunch, the students spoke with determination, purpose, and clarity. Several had defied our instructions, a kind of civil disobedience if you will. We asked them why they went against the rules.  The answers filled me with hope. They said they would not bend to the will of those who seek to divide. They stated that their friendship and loyalty to those they cared for, their new partners, outweighed any “societal” pressure to shun, demean, or divide. In other words, they stood up for an ideal in the face of pressure to do the wrong thing. I was reminded of the Robert Kennedy quote:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Finally, I was most moved during the “Perception Line” activity. Students stood in a line across the gym, each student holding the hand of their partner, then connecting to the rest of the group. Eric read a series of statements filled with perceptions, privileges, and biases.  Rooted in culture, economics, social standing, family makeup, opportunities (or lack thereof), ethnicity, and many other factors, the statements hold a mirror up to many of our societal perceptions. Each statement, based on its positive or negative impact on an individual’s status in our society, caused some students to step forward or backward, while others stood still.  Students watched as some of their friends continued to step backwards. I watched as they desperately tried to hold on to their partners’ hands as they stood farther and farther apart. Even though it was just a game, a simple activity, they inherently didn't want to let go.  They refused to let even one of their new friends breakaway. They didn't let anyone fall, no matter how uncomfortable it became. The students were bonded. They refused to let differences, struggles, or even space divide them. At the end of the previous Diversity Day, when Maplewood visited Jackson, one of the students said, “the only thing that separates us is a hundred miles.” Today, they found a way to close even that divide.
I may have gone there to inspire the students, but I was the one who left inspired.
Still, as if on cue, the “real world” invaded almost immediately. That evening, I began receiving messages from my friends and family in my hometown. See, I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I often visit. The city is part of who I am. Baltimore began descending into chaos and violence this weekend. It’s growing. Even as I write this, I’m receiving messages from family. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading some of the comments that follow news stories online. They are filled with hatred, violence, ignorance, and desperation. Yet, in the middle of it all, I hear the voices of the young people from Jackson County and Maplewood. I hear their hope. I see their fresh perspective. I feel their truth-filled defiance.  I know, yes I know, they will do it better. They will continue to usher in change.  They are ready and willing, if we provide the space, to bridge the deep waters that are between us, to bring peace in the midst of chaos, and hold up hope in a sometimes hopeless world.
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yes, I think I prefer the student’s definition of diversity over the Webster’s definition:
Diversity: “How inside our differences, we are all the same”
April 2015