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St. Louis high schoolers tackle ethnic stereotypes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2009 - Sprawled in a loose ring, 10 young black women sit in the back corner of the conference room, their list of questions almost complete.

One for the Jewish girls: What exactly is a Jewish princess?

Another for the white Christian women: Were you aware of all the discrimination others go through?

At the same time, five other satellite groups finish up their own list of questions that strike at the heart of stereotypes, cultural misnomers and prejudices. In the next hour, each will take a turn in the "fishbowl," as the exercise is called, answering delicate questions in a quest to break down racial and religious barriers.

"The fishbowl allows you to see something from a different perspective," Phil Hunsberger, a longtime educator and diversity advocate tells the group.

It's all part of the intense, early stages of a yearlong program dedicated to fighting discrimination and creating activists for social justice. Created in 2004, Cultural Leadership brings together primarily, but not exclusively, black and Jewish high school students from across St. Louis.

They meet monthly for workshops and exercises that are intended to spur mutual understanding and instill leadership, community organizing and conflict resolution skills. The unique program --- which includes a three-week summer trip to historic civil rights sites --- aims to create a generation of leaders who will speak up and directly tackle daily injustices and inequalities.

"There's a million problems that exist today, and we need a next generation who is going to be start learning the skills to bring about social change," said Karen Kalish, the organization's founder and executive director. "Too many people are invested in the status quo in this country. These young people are not; they're committed to change."

Inside the fishbowl

The fifth class of Cultural Leadership -- comprised of 32 sophomores and juniors from 22 St. Louis-area schools -- kicked off the week before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with a 53-hour retreat at the Drury Inn at Interstate 44 and Hampton Avenue.

It's the largest class in the organization's history.

"I hope to appreciate other people more, in a different way," said Anna Rathje, 16, a junior at Lutheran North High School. "I want to be able to say I did something to better my community."

The students spent the weekend learning more about the program and their fellow classmates. They experienced Shabbat services and spent three hours on Sunday at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in North St. Louis.

They also spent time writing in their journals, watching videos about racial attitudes and discrimination and talking to each other about their own racial and religious perspectives.

The fishbowl sessions, which helped the students address lingering stereotypes, were led by Hunsberger, former executive director of the Metro East Consortium for Child Advocacy, and Cindy Neu, curriculum coordinator for the Webster Groves School District.

"This program really empowers these young people," said Hunsberger, in his fourth year with Cultural Leadership. "They're willing to challenge all sorts of status quo."

Cultural Leadership has few, if any, counterparts nationwide. Its roots are traced to an initiative created in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s by U.S. Rep. William H. Gray -- who also served as president of the United Negro College Fund -- and George Ross, former president of the American Jewish Committee.

Kalish, a former journalist, consumer advocate and media consultant, learned of the initiative in the early '90s while living in Washington, D.C. She started a similar group in the nation's capital in 1993.

Kalish eventually relocated to St. Louis and founded Cultural Leadership in 2004. Almost 100 Jewish and black students have participated in the first four classes.

"They're learning to stand up and speak out," Kalish said. "There is no program like this in the region, and I have not found one like this in the country."

Fellow nonprofits and organizations nationwide have taken notice. Cultural Leadership has landed at least $200,000 in grants the past two years, including $125,000 from the W.G. Kellogg Foundation and $40,000 from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation.

That outside funding is key. The program runs on a $300,000 annual budget and covers most of each student's $6,000 tuition. Students are responsible for raising $150 from three different sources, while their families are asked to contribute $350.

Some students wind up giving a bit more than required. Kalish and her facilitators run a tight ship, and students who show up late to events face a nominal fine. Absences are tolerated for only a handful of serious reasons.

The policies have led to a few casualties. Eight students dropped from the third class of Cultural Leadership, and the fourth class lost one, Kalish said.

"Being a change agent is really serious, and you have to model behavior and you have to be a leader," she said. "If you're not going to live as your word and by your word, we don't want them."

Outside the comfort zone

After the weekend retreat, the class will reconvene in February for programs on African and African-American history and culture. Monthly sessions will follow, including an April retreat, before the summer trip to New York, Washington, D.C., and several Southern cities.

Beyond that, the students must go "outside their comfort zone" each month, by taking actions like confronting bullies or speaking out against discrimination, Kalish said.

They recount those actions each month on an online message board, spurring discussion and learning among themselves. Each student is required to respond to at least two discussions.

By the year's end, community organizing and media cultivation skills will be folded into the mix. Cultural Leadership graduates have gone on to create social justice groups and spearhead diversity initiatives on college campuses and in communities across the country.

"Sometimes it's easier to be quiet," said Aaron Johnson, 17, a junior at Trinity Catholic. "If I work out of my comfort zone, I will be better in the long haul. Whatever I do, I want to help my community."

Parkway North's Shayna Rosen introduces herself to the group by presenting a Life Map — a visual representation of her and her goals.

Chris Birk, a freelance writer, teaches journalism at Webster University. 

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