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Teens and adults learning to live in a diverse society

Teens and adults learning to live in a diverse society

By Nick Sortal

December 8, 2001

The teenage girls in the mall giggle over an outfit they'd never even think of buying.

•Oh, it's so GAY!ö says one girl, unaware that the teen across the aisle is a lesbian.

Two African-American football players trade high-fives in the locker room, using the standard greeting: •What's up, N-----!ö

Their white teammate nearby feels left out, because if he used that word a brawl would break out.

It's these everyday examples of bias and prejudice the National Conference for Community and Justice is trying to eliminate. Some comments are more confrontational, but many are more subtle, a form of liberal racism imbedded in even the most sensitive of us.

Like assuming a black family needs money. Or asking the co-worker with the Hispanic last name what country he's from.

The NCCJ, a human relations organization, has its sights on teaching children and teens to recognize prejudice. It uses a barrage of classes, courses and special events to educate them. As an added bonus, sometimes adults get a lesson, too.

It's about closing the divide between people.

•If I can find a little bit of me somewhere in you, then it makes it easier for me to like you,ö says Carol V. Spring, executive director of the NCCJ chapter that serves Broward and south Palm Beach counties. The problem comes when people slice the world into pieces based on race, religion, economic status, gender or sexual orientation.

The NCCJ's flagship program for teaching youths is its Metrotown Leadership Summit experience. Local teens gather for a weekend at cabins at Gold Coast Christian Camp in Lake Worth, sharing experiences of prejudice and trying to walk a mile in the other person's shoes.

The Metrotown groups are generally one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic, Asian-American, American Indian and multiracial. Most of the 60 students are culled from school human-relations councils, which the NCCJ has in place at all of Broward's 25 public high schools and most of its private schools and learning centers. The NCCJ hopes to establish a similar setup in Palm Beach County. It is asking the public to sponsor individuals for the $250 cost of the camp.

•We're at the age where we're at the prime of our learning experience,ö says Natalie Lopez, a sophomore at Cooper City High School.

•It's important that we get this right, because we're the future. And it's especially important now, after Sept. 11, when we're all much more aware of the different cultures our world has.ö

Even the most pro-diversity students are aware of how patient they must be to bring about social change.

•When you think about it, it's impossible to change people. All you can do is offer a different point of view,ö says Melroy Sterling, a senior from Northeast High School in Oakland Park who attended a Metrotown session this fall as a counselor-in-training. •But everybody there got a lot out of it.ö

Sterling, who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and lives in Lauderdale Lakes, says he often is stereotyped as someone who should have dreadlocks and smoke ganga.

•That, or they think I'm a violent type, a gangsta,ö he says. •You can't categorize a whole group of people over the actions of just a couple.ö

While the NCCJ has plenty of ways to reach children and teens, it hasn't given up on the adults, devoting one-third of its budget to communitywide programs and one-fifth to programs dealing with interfaith understanding. A Nov. 16 discussion, based on a survey titled •Taking America's Pulse II,ö drew a crowd of leaders in education, business and government. They heard about a follow-up to a study first conducted in 1993.

•People feel closer to other [cultural] groups than they did in the past and report having more interracial and interethnic contact now than they did in 1993,ö says Tom W. Smith, the NCCJ's survey consultant.

The gist: Progress is being made, but it's slow.

•What's interesting is that when people make friends beyond white-to-white or rich-to-rich, it's because the people are alike in their hearts,ö Spring says. •And that makes for a stronger, deeper kind of a friendship.ö

Nick Sortal can be reached at or 954-385-7906.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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