|Getting Kids Ready for a Global Future: Why—and How—Youth LEAD Teaches Young People to Connect Across “Differences”|
|News Releases - Education & Schools|
|Written by Dottie DeHart|
|Tuesday, 17 April 2012 15:45|
In our super-connected global world, it’s ironic and sad that so many people still
seem disconnected from those of other faiths and cultures. Youth LEAD, a Massachusetts
non-profit, is seeking to bridge this chasm of misunderstanding and prejudice.
Executive Director Janet Penn explains why its approach works so well.
Sharon, MA (April 2012)—The world is, without a doubt, flatter than it’s ever been. Corporations that a mere 30 years ago were bound to their home country now have locations dotting the globe. The Internet lets us “talk” to people on the other side of the earth with just the click of a mouse. And the U.S. itself is becoming far more culturally diverse: The 2010 census found that Hispanic and Asian populations increased considerably over the past decade, while the non-Hispanic white population grew at the slowest rate.
Given all this change, you’d think that people would naturally gain more acceptance and understanding of those whose skin has more (or less) pigment or who have a different concept of God (or none at all). Unfortunately, says Janet Penn, executive director of Youth LEAD (www.youthleadonline.org), you’d be wrong.
“Sure there are exceptions, but many people seem, if not more polarized, at least more entrenched in their comfort zones than ever,” says Penn. “Watch the news and you’ll see ample evidence of racial strife, of cultural suspicion, of wars and acts of hate waged in the name of religion. In fact, you don’t even have to turn on the TV to see the roots of these problems—just look at the self-segregated makeup of the typical high school cafeteria.”
How can a global society function well when its members can’t (or won’t) connect with each other in a meaningful way? It can’t, insists Penn, which is why she’s made it her goal to help bridge what she calls the “difference divide” between people of different cultures and faiths. That means getting to them at a young age and helping them understand each other.
This is where Youth LEAD excels. This non-profit organization based in Sharon, Massachusetts (an exceptionally diverse town), trains a diverse group of area high school students to reflect upon their values and beliefs, connect with others across differences, and then the youth themselves act together to address local and global challenges. What makes Youth LEAD very different from typical diversity programs is that the youth truly do lead—adults offer support, but the teens do the hard work of facilitating tough talks across differences themselves.
Youth LEAD has enjoyed tremendous success during the eight years it’s been in operation. It’s being featured as one of only two promising youth practices in the United States in a major new study by Harvard’s Pluralism Project (www.pluralism.org/interfaith/
The Pluralism Project recognized Youth LEAD because of its “authentic youth leadership” model (rather than just talking, they actually plan and facilitate complex events) and their multi-year trainings that give teens critical 21st century skills. Unlike many programs or peace camps that bring youth together for one encounter (even if it’s for a week or two), Youth LEADers spend several years together, running their own meetings and community service projects. It’s too hard to talk about the “hard stuff” on your first date.
Currently, the teens are planning the TIDE Conference, to be held May 25-27 at Northeastern University in Boston, MA (www.youthleadonline.org/tide-
Penn says Youth LEAD’s overarching goal is for youth to develop the skills they’re going to need to operate in an increasingly global, culturally diverse world.
“How do you ask the questions that help you truly understand someone—especially if it’s someone with whom you have a fundamental disagreement?” she asks. “How do you work together with people from all different backgrounds to address the problems in your community? If people can learn these skills while they’re in their teens, they’ll be able to decrease polarization on their college campuses and later in their workplaces and communities.”
Penn’s plan now is to take the template she’s spent years refining and share it with other communities. Last year, Youth LEADers provided year-long trainings to youth at a local Islamic Center and on Staten Island, NY. This year, they trained youth at a local YMCA. Next fall, Youth LEAD plans to spread further afield, to Oklahoma City, Boston, and Central Massachusetts.
“Media stories often reinforce stereotypes and do not fully describe the rich complexity of communities,” says Penn. “Youth LEADers have a nuanced understanding of ideas and conflicts, based upon their communication and facilitation training as well as long-term relationships with others across differences.”
So why does Youth LEAD’s approach work so well? Penn and several alumni of the program offer the following insights:
• Youth get deeply invested because they plan and run the programs. What sets Youth LEAD apart from other programs of its kind is that the teens find their own voice and truly do the work themselves (rather than following orders given by adults). Youth LEADers don’t just run an icebreaker; they plan the entire conference. They are trained facilitators who are often called upon to mediate discussions in the larger community. They do it all themselves, from assessing problems to organizing events to implementing every detail.
• It forces young people to get in touch with their own beliefs. Youth LEAD requires its participants to articulate in front of a group what they believe in. This helps them gain clarity on their own views, which in turn creates confidence and a strong sense of self. This is an important first step in being able to communicate with people who disagree. A Christian or Jew who is secure in his own faith, who is not just “going along” with what he thinks he’s “supposed” to believe, is less likely to feel threatened by hearing beliefs that are the polar opposite of his own views. In fact, a democracy depends upon a citizenry able to understand why they hold their beliefs and how to defend them, rather than blindly following the pack.
“People fear that interfaith work will dilute their religion or convert them, but it’s not like that at all,” says Daisy Alioto, a Youth LEAD alum and Christian Scientist who attends Bowdoin College in Maine. “It really helped me become more articulate about explaining my religion. Sometimes it takes someone asking you a question that you never considered to increase your understanding of your religion.”
• It helps them give “different” a name and a face. Left to their own devices, kids tend to gravitate toward others who are most like them. Youth LEAD forces them to truly get to know young people from other faiths and cultures. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to getting to like them. And from that point on, when they think of Jews, they think “Talia.” When they think of Muslims, they think “Amal.” This makes it far more difficult to feel apathy or negativity toward these groups. They come to see the essential humanity in everyone.
“I became friends with many people I know I wouldn’t have gotten to know at school,” adds Amal Cheema, a Muslim and a junior at Sharon High School.
“I was never a racist person, and I give thanks to my parents because of that,” says Cheema. “But trust me, I did harbor some stereotypes. What Youth LEAD did was make me realize what tolerance exactly is. Tolerance is not merely accepting someone exists but taking an initiative to understand another’s identity and pride.
“I became a leader, a facilitator, a conflict resolver, a diplomat, a cultural person, a religious person, a citizen because of Youth LEAD…It allowed me to overcome the human tendency to create patterns—patterns that often lead to stereotypes, then to racism, then to conflicts,” she adds.
• They gain a “toolkit” of communication skills that transfer to other people and situations outside the immediate group. Youth LEAD provides intensive training to its participants on how to listen actively, to communicate respectfully even when they disagree, and to negotiate difficult conversations. These are valuable skills that not only help them meet the goals they set inside Youth LEAD—say, initiating an interfaith dialogue between religious Muslims and religious Jews, or educating communities on how to stop teen pregnancy or violence—but that will help them in all aspects of life.
“Many of society’s biggest problems, including terrorism and other forms of violence, stem from desperation and hopelessness,” says Penn. “And I think that’s one of the most powerful things about Youth LEAD. We encourage young people to think about how they can help lift their fellow human beings out of those conditions.
“It’s not all about talking,” she adds. “It’s about trying to fix what’s broken in the world, together—and it’s about not letting the fact that you don’t look like each other or agree with each other stop you from your mission.”
Renata Bakousseva, who now works for an oil company in Brunei Darussalam, Southeast Asia, says she is currently using many of the skills she learned during her time with Youth LEAD. “I find that I am…more understanding of the traditions, despite being newly exposed to them, than some other expats,” she says. “Youth LEAD taught me how to handle these differences, how to agree to disagree with someone’s ideas without showing disrespect for the opposite culture…Youth LEAD nurtured within me this desire to learn more about other people. So anywhere I go, I make the effort to befriend people who have different backgrounds. It makes life more fun and interesting!”
Ultimately, the biggest fans of intercultural organizations tend to be the young people who’ve belonged to them. They wax eloquent about the rewards they receive from the experience.
“What it does for each person is different,” explains Cheema. “For some people, they find their identity. Others connect with their culture, religion, or heritage. Some become leaders; some become dialoguers. Youth LEAD is completely personalized in how it changes you as a human being.
“Maybe, just maybe,” she adds, “if youth from all over the U.S.A. participated in Youth LEAD, then any type of conflict would be resolved in a flash, people could be more tolerant of each other, and in a long shot, world peace would not be so far off.”
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About Youth LEAD:
YL teen leaders at the flagship program in Sharon, MA, have developed and facilitated community dialogues, celebrations, and school programs for over 4,000 people. They have presented workshops at national conferences in Chicago, Kansas City, Cambridge, and Atlanta, and international conferences in India and Jordan. In the spring of 2011, YL Sharon teens were featured on Linda Ellerbee’s Nick News segment “Freedom to Believe…or Not” as an example of teens “waging peace” in the name of religion (available on www.nick.com/videos/nick-news-
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