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Fighting Prejudice One Teen at a Time
Nesshell Rainford

Bigotry. Prejudice. Discrimination. I have experienced these things firsthand, and they shocked and upset me. That’s why I was inspired to meet a group of teenagers who are trying to rid the world of these issues.

As part of our reporting on racial healing, the staff of YCteen visited the New York headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to meet teen interns involved in ADL’s “World of Difference” program. The ADL was founded in 1913 to combat prejudice against Jewish people, and through the years it’s been involved in fighting for civil rights and similar causes.

The World of Difference program has two parts. During the school year, it provides workshops for teens using hands-on activities to make them more aware of the benefits of diversity and the need to confront prejudice. Then these teens lead similar activities at their schools, helping their peers recognize bias and the harm that it inflicts on people. Once they become peer trainers, teens are eligible to apply for a summer internship. Accepted summer interns work in different departments of the ADL and learn about its operations.

Although the ADL is known for standing up against hate crimes, Jason Sirois, an assistant project director, told us that World of Difference is also about how we all behave in our day-to-day lives. “It’s about diversity and respecting others; there are conversations about bullying and the roles people play to stop bullying. It’s a big discussion,” he said. As we talked to the teens in the program, we got a better idea of what this discussion really means.

A Lack of Respect

When we arrived at the ADL offices, we were faced with about 15 ethnically diverse interns. After introductions, three of them led an activity called “Machine Team Building,” a game that’s like charades and required us to collaborate with people we didn’t know. This activity didn’t relate directly to race or even discrimination, as many World of Difference activities do. Instead, the point was to encourage teamwork, trust, and mutual support. In that way, it quickly illustrated the ADL’s mission of promoting respect.

Many of the teens we met joined World of Difference because they found themselves in situations where support and respect were missing. Shirley Shum was bothered by homophobia at her school. And Leonida DeLeon was picked on for not speaking English when she moved to the U.S. at age 5. In high school she noticed a classmate in a wheelchair being teased, and related to what he was going through. “I thought that I should be his friend because no one else wanted to. That’s what made me want to get involved with ADL—my experience and then his,” DeLeon said.

Other interns said that the program has shown them discrimination is more common than they thought. “In 1st grade, they make it seem that racism doesn’t exist anymore. Before I did the training, I thought that everyone looked at me the same, that no one was being discriminated against,” said Dennis Ashley. The program taught him how many people still have biases. Some of the ADL’s work this summer, for example, involved responding with outreach to a recent wave of hate crimes against Latinos in Staten Island (see story, p. 26).

A Nudge in the Right Direction

But these teens aren’t discouraged. By reaching out to peers, they are working to change things for the better. And they gave us great advice about how to try to change things ourselves, even if it’s to prevent a common problem like bullying. As Marcus Burns put it, “Not a lot of people have the confidence to stand up for what’s right, or even stand up for themselves. Sometimes you have to be that person.” And Max Newirth added, “Just giving little nudges to people in the right direction can make all the difference.”

image by YC-Art Dept

They’ve seen their influence spread to other teens. Kathy Rodriguez describes leading an activity where participants had to act out the words “ableism” (or bias toward people who are able-bodied) and “discrimination.”

“One girl was surprised because she had a cousin who had, I think it was autism, and she’d never realized what her cousin felt when kids would make fun of her. She said, ‘This is going to change the way even I act with her,’” Rodriguez remembered.

Even more important, the interns understood that changing the world also means changing themselves. Glenn Cantave was once assigned to lead a special ed class in a group activity. “It was called ‘The Lemon Activity,’ about not judging someone based on what they look like,” he said. “And honestly I thought to myself, ‘Oh, great. They’re not going to be able to comprehend what I’m saying.’ I judged.” But he was proved wrong. “They were literally the best class I’ve ever had. They paid attention, they comprehended everything I was saying, and they really dug deep into the activity,” he said, adding, “This ADL experience at every step of the way has made me grow as a person.”

Standing Strong

To me, these teens embodied ADL’s mission to fight racism and other forms of prejudice. They made me more aware of some of the problems that exist. While those things aren’t pleasant to think about, I left their office feeling that I could do something to improve the world.

That’s why, when they gave us all buttons stating “We Are a Nation of Immigrants,” I eagerly put mine on. Especially with the hate crimes going on in Staten Island, I wanted to stand up against the idea that immigrants don’t belong in this country.

Shirley, one of the interns, had told us about her positive experiences wearing this pin; one man had told her he loved it and when she thanked him the man said, “No; thank you.” With my message pinned to the front of my denim jacket, I felt like an important part of society, ready to be praised by people who felt the same way I did.

It didn’t turn out like that. On my second day wearing the button, an African-American man on the train asked me with annoyance what the message meant. Then, leaving the train, he mumbled a rude comment and added, in an exasperated tone, “I ain’t never heard anything like that.”

I was embarrassed and wondered why instead of praise, I was getting criticism. I wondered whether I should take the button off so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again.

But then I thought about it more, and I realized that most major changes start with one person. If I want to change things, I might have to be that one person and make a start, even if I encounter opposition along the way. I decided to keep the button right where it was, for all to read.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the World of Difference program, have your teacher call the ADL at 212-885-7811 to schedule a peer training session for your class. (You will then be eligible to apply for an internship.)

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