E=MC2 the right formula for diversity awareness, tolerance
Author: Tammy L. Lane • First Posted: Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Students in E=MC2 (Equality equals Multi-Cultural Collaboration) are stepping up to ensure their peers are more aware and more tolerant of the diversity in Fayette County Public Schools. Whether race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation or whatever other factors supposedly divide people, these high schoolers have come together to talk about the sometimes sensitive issues, build bridges and make new friends.
“I learned a lot of this in psychology class, but it’s different to have a discussion with a diverse group,” said Haleigh Whitlock, a sophomore at Lafayette High School. “If you’re not consciously trying to change it, it won’t happen,” she added.
About two dozen teenagers met at Lafayette one recent Saturday for team-building exercises and small-group activities. Upperclassmen who participated the previous two years took the lead as the participants defined “prejudice” and set some ground rules, such as respecting one another’s opinions and feelings.
“This is designed to teach sophomores to identify and overcome prejudices and discrimination in their own lives and around them,” said Aaron Karp, a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. “Sophomores are still young enough that we can make an impression, and they can go on to make a difference in their junior and senior years.”
On the lawn, the teens stretched out in a horizontal line and held hands as a series of questions prompted them to take one step forward or one step back – questions such as did you have more than 50 books in your house while growing up, did you ever skip a meal because there was no food, was one of your parents ever laid off from work, did you attend summer enrichment camps, did your family call you capable and smart, and were you ever treated less fairly because of a personal trait.
“You really get to see just where people are in life, and it gets you thinking,” Lafayette junior Marcel Oyuela-Bonzani said after the activity. “You can’t judge based on appearances. Inside, people may have had completely different circumstances.”
In another scenario, the students literally had labels on their backs – labels like “homeless” or “Goth,” an ethnic group or a disability – and they volleyed questions to figure out how others perceived them. In a breakout after lunch, the teens shared memories of a time when they were ridiculed or harassed, and pondered whether words alone are hurtful even without malicious intent, as with the phrase “That’s so gay!”
“There are a lot of ‘isms’ in the world,” said Julia McCorvey, a senior at Henry Clay High School. “When you keep it in your head, it’s a stereotype. When you act on it – when you play it out in real life – it’s discrimination.”
The districtwide E=MC2 is based at Lafayette, where science teacher Zach Matson serves as club adviser. He reached out to colleagues in each high school to recommend tenth-graders for the April 27 gathering; upperclassmen also invited friends connected through other school organizations. In the coming weeks, the students will meet again for a community service project, likely at The Arboretum. Participants will get an E=MC2 T-shirt and an as-yet-undecided book to take home. One year the selection was “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”
“We encourage each person to bring at least two people outside their normal friend group,” Aaron said of the work day. “It’s a good way to get us all involved and acquainted with new people. We work all day pulling weeds or whatever they need us to do, and then have lunch together.”
Matson has been on board since the beginning of E=MC2. During the summer of 2010, the Bezos Family Foundation sponsored a trip to the Aspen Ideas Festival for Jonathan Karp, a Lafayette graduate currently studying at Washington University in St. Louis. Matson went along as a “scholar educator.” Afterward, Jonathan and his mentor organized a local ideas festival in an effort to improve communication and break down barriers among students.
“When you see how these kids open up, it’s surprising how willing they are to share. There’s a need for it,” Matson said.
E=MC2 is now in its third spring, with Jonathan’s brother Aaron at the helm.
“When I look at my group of friends, it’s sadly not diverse and that’s really a shame. Stereotypes and prejudices are drilled into us at an early age,” Aaron said. “My personal goal is to expand my circle of friends and encourage others to include people of different cultures and attributes in their own social groups.”