Peer leaders at Memorial High School have just spent three weeks with students from around the state discussing tolerance and acceptance through the NCCJ-NJ Anytown Peer Leadership program.
“We spoke a lot about racism and how people are treated in society,” said Giselle Javier. “A lot of it I had heard before, but it was a reminder, and we talked about how we can stop [that type of treatment], but first we have to stop it within ourselves.”
Memorial High School has been sending students to these workshops -usually five every year – from their peer counseling groups, over the last 10 years.
The objective of the program is to open communications between student leaders of different heritages and beliefs.
“We [The school peer leadership program] provide peer mediation services for the school and the administration as well,” said Ed Donnelly, Memorial peer leadership coordinator/instructor.
Throughout the three-week period, students dealt with issues of discrimination in all its forms from racial to gender, and how to best address those issues within their own community.
“Most conflicts occur due to miscommunication,” said Lazaro Villarreal. “Mostly people don’t want to talk they just want to go at each other, and we provide a barrier.”
As part of the program, the students are grouped together with others from different backgrounds to work on activities.
“Our focus is on education and the empowerment of young leaders to promote diversity and inclusion,” said Diane Schwartz, president and CEO of NCCJ-NJ (National Conference of Christians and Jews). “The Anytown education is the signature [program] for our youth leadership.”
One of the workshops that really affected the kids was on what was known as Gender Night, where the kids participated and activities and workshops that touched upon intolerance involving gender discrimination.
According to Donnelly, the students were very open and really put their all into the exercises.
“Gender Night was about sexism, and that night was eye-opening for me,” said Peggy Ramirez. “We discussed some of the words that are used, even jokingly, and how they affect people.”
“To me this year was the most powerful,” said Donnelly. “These kids just let everything out.”
The program was sponsored by NCCJ-NJ, which is a human relations organization originally founded in 1927 as the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
The organization has since expanded and reaches out to all people, especially youths. They sponsor programs that are dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism in America by teaching leadership workshops that promote advocacy, conflict resolution, and education.
The NCCJ-NJ Anytown program has been running for about 11 years, and brings together about 200 high school students from all over the urban, suburban and rural areas of the state and from all walks of life.
“One of my reasons for going to this program is how people what I have learned and to make a difference,” said Brooke Lopez.
“We’ve got kids, which were selected by their schools, from all over New Jersey for three one-week sessions,” said Schwartz. “The program encompasses a series of workshops, large and small discussion groups, and we require the students to put together an action plan for human relations improvement in their school and community.”
According to Schwartz, the students devise their action plan with the help of their school advisor, and that throughout the years.
“They do very interesting and creative things,” said Schwartz. “For example, action plans can include setting up a human relations group in their school, sometimes they develop dramas or workshops to take to lower grades, training for teachers, and even a youth community summit.”
This year the students of Memorial High School will be implementing various activities and hope to set up forums with both students and teachers, and other things they have in the planning stages.
Throughout the year, the NCCJ-NJ also continues to work with the students to help implement their action plans.
“I would say one of the things these kids get from the program is self-reflection,” said Donnelly. “They honestly take a look at themselves and see who they are and become more comfortable with that.”
Graduates of the Anytown program also continue to assist the NCCJ-NJ as delegates, and even help plan one-day youth forums throughout the state through one of the organizations other programs.
“We also bring them back together again in January for an advanced training workshop,” said Schwartz.