In an evening that was interreligious, interracial, and intergenerational, adults and high school students opened a dialogue against racism that is being led by teenagers in Morris and Essex counties.
Meeting Oct. 30 at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, a group called STAR, Strong Teens Against Racism, held a meeting of 35 adults and young people in the synagogue’s social hall. The topic was “The Danger of a Single Story,” explained as the forming of prejudice against an individual on the basis of looks, language, or other superficial traits.
One half of the 30 young people in the program attend Beth Hatikvah.
At the start of the meeting, Bola Lawrence from Berkeley Heights, one of two adult coordinators of STAR, told NJJN that the group’s objective is to raise community awareness about the dangers of bigotry and prejudice.
“We all have prejudice but we need to help people recognize their prejudice and be more aware of it,” she said.
Caroline Dean, a Montclair resident and a pastor at Christ Church in Summit, was co-leader of the group, which is doing anti-racism and identity development work and with high school teenagers. “The goal is really to build community work against racism in our communities,” she said. “Our teams lead us in the ability to have this conversation in a really beautiful way.”
As the ensemble divided into smaller groups, the teenage leaders encouraged their elders to be open about the prejudices they feel and see around them.
A Jewish man in one group said that he and his friends focused on assimilating into the mainstream culture. “We grew up in white America and we wanted to blend in.”
Said another white participant, “We all do things based on a fear that someone is black or white. That is nature. It is what is drilled into us. I find that it is always there. It never goes away, but doesn’t mean I think any less of the black person.”
An African-American participant said that everyone is shaped by the media. Speaking about a friend he met at work, the man told the audience, “He is a Muslim and he was crying and upset because he lives in a world where Islamophobia is very aggressive. People assume he is a radical and that Islam is a religion of hate,” he said.
“But he wants people to understand that Islam is his faith and he feels hopeless. He feels he is wrong for believing something that will make people continue to be prejudiced against him. It is terrible. I can’t live with that.”
After the meeting, Lawrence said she had learned “a lot about other races that I wouldn’t otherwise have learned.” She said she believes such gatherings are a positive step toward developing understanding and empathy for those who come from different backgrounds, even if it doesn’t “immediately swing the pendulum.”
A mother and daughter, Dale and Rina Anglin of Plainfield, were both pleased at the outcome.
“As a facilitator it was good to hear other people’s stories and their thoughts,” said Rina, a senior at Kent Place High School in Summit, and a discussion leader at the event. “It is not just about sharing your opinions. It is making sure everyone is comfortable and everyone’s voices are heard.”
Her mother agreed; Dale said it is “fabulous” to have young people understand their own stories.
“They help each of us remember and be cognizant of our own stories and develop empathy for each other.”