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FEATURE

Better Together

An innovative curriculum spurs South Carolina students to fight bigotry.

As Oneal Williams describes it, the bathroom graffiti at Flora High School used to be pretty intense: "We had KKK stuff, 'I hate n-----s' stuff," says the Columbia, S.C., senior.

But among his 40 peers at a state-sponsored youth conference, it isn't the malicious messages that grab their attention. The real eye-opener is the matter-of-fact solution Oneal describes: Instead of waiting for the administration or the custodian to respond, he and fellow members of Flora's Harmony Committee simply cleaned the bathrooms, painted them in fresh colors and decorated them with posters and plants, performing touch-ups whenever necessary. Not everyone may like the colors, Oneal says, but it sure beats the racist graffiti.

Students from Flora and two other Columbia area high schools -- Dreher and Airport -- are on the forefront of an ambitious but practical-minded effort to create a positive racial climate in South Carolina (see In Context).

In 1996, the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council (CRC) launched a pilot program to develop school-based leadership groups, variously known as unity task forces or harmony committees, in all 12 Richland County public high schools.

A Columbia-grown curriculum called Building Cultural Bridges provides a common foundation for challenging racism and creating community.

 

A How-To Guide

"The big book that teaches you how to get along better," as one participating student calls Bridges, is a comprehensive, user-friendly guidebook on intercultural relations for both teachers and students. Like many of her colleagues in the task force initiative, principal author Joby Robinson cites the 1992 Los Angeles riots 3,000 miles away as her wake-up call on race relations.

In response to a scarcity of curriculum resources addressing racial diversity, Robinson -- at the time a special ed teacher -- collaborated with University of South Carolina educational psychology professor Bob Bowman on a series of lesson plans aimed at exploring attitudes and improving communication about differences. Later, with the help of three diversity consultants who developed and tested related activities, Robinson and Bowman expanded the program into Bridges.

The Bridges handbook is designed for maximum flexibility, providing a springboard for a weekend conference or a framework for a semester-long course. The program entails seven steps, including recognizing cultural commonalities and differences, developing positive relations with members of other cultures, and confronting prejudices in oneself and others. The steps are sequenced to lead students and teachers from awareness to action and from knowledge to the development of skills.

Bridges includes student handouts and other teaching aids and tips for integrating the program into the daily curriculum.

Airport High uses portions of the Bridges curriculum in its mandatory Airport 101 orientation and community-building course for 9th graders. In addition, teacher Angie Byrd finds the program a "natural" for her 9th grade geography classes. She introduces each world region using the curriculum's list of 10 elements of culture, which include social relationships, diet and food preparation, and family structure. In researching each topic, students discover the common structures that underlie cultural diversity.

The component Byrd finds most useful is "Ground Rules for Activities and Discussions."

"Ninth graders have a hard time staying within bounds," she observes. "They talk over each other, blame each other, don't know how to agree to disagree. They need these communication skills."

During every week's Friday Forum on such topics as community relations and cultural differences, Byrd and her students make frequent reference to their five-point agreement: Listen carefully and patiently to each person who speaks; express yourself openly and honestly; search for truth from each person's perspective; avoid belittling or blaming; and maintain each person's confidentiality.

The ground rules, Byrd reports, replace centralized authority with collective responsibility: "The students catch themselves. They catch each other."

 

You're Not Listening!

Learning to recognize poor communication is an essential part of the skill-building process. At one of Dreher High's weekly task force meetings, the "Communication Blockers" exercise makes the point with a twist. Two presiding students distribute a Bridges handout and instruct participants to form pairs. One partner is to talk about a book or film while the other simply listens. Off they go.

"Stop!" shouts one of the moderators after a while.

The room goes quiet.

"What was your talker's last sentence?" a leader asks one pair.

"What was your last sentence?" a Black girl whispers to her Asian-American partner, who has just revealed that she cried during Aladdin. All eyes are watching as the listener stalls.

"Say something!" says the talker.

"She said that the last book she read was Sounder," says the listener. "And she cried about it."

"Noooo," says the Aladdin-lover.

The leader asks the talkers how they knew whether the listeners were listening. The students answer: by the nodding, the eye contact and the questions asked. Another offers proof: "When I said 'Brad Pitt,' she said: 'Mmmm.'"

New exercise, new handout, same pairs. The talkers and listeners switch roles this time.

"Stop!" The leader asks the talkers what they've just heard.

One talker ignores the procedure.

"He was a horrible listener," she complains.

"How so?"

"He interrupted me, told me what I should have done, always topped [one-upped] me."

"How did that make you feel?"

"Very unimportant."

Bingo! The handout "Communication Blockers" instructs listeners to listen poorly, providing tips on how to do that.

"Everybody who talks to me knows I always top," one student confesses with a laugh.

"Oh, Kelly," says another, rising to the challenge. "I top a whole lot more than you do!"

 

One County's Vision

Like the Bridges curriculum, the Richland County pilot aims to avoid a "cookie cutter" approach. Some participating schools are on the basic level of trying to build awareness of the need to address diversity and are making a start with a task force. Others are on the second level of team-building; they have the beginning of a task force in place, with a sponsor and at least five students meeting at least twice a month.

Dreher and Flora -- along with Airport, which is outside the pilot county -- are on the third and most comprehensive level. Infusion schools, as these are called, have active task forces with at least 10 members, a written philosophy and a Bridges elective in place, with ongoing plans for integrating the program into the larger curriculum.

Activities in Columbia area schools include lunch jams, drum sessions, school assemblies, and 24-hour lock-ins with group games, discussion and problem-solving.

The Harmony Committee at Flora makes presentations to 8th graders at a feeder school about life at the bigger and more diverse high school. At Dreher, the task force sponsors an annual event called "Three Weeks of Unity."

"The clubs have to be student-run," asserts Flora student Tim Semon. "Yes, you have to have sponsors -- that's legalities or something. But you have to have students who are committed."

Guidance counselor Karen Cooper-Haber's emphasis is different. She started Flora's Harmony Committee but now works at another school. Ultimately, sponsors should lead, she argues.

"They need to help the kids discover, provide them with structure, and give them permission, and the people who give the permission should provide a model."

For instance, she says, students often say that they really don't see color. "That's just not true. In their effort to move beyond color, they sometimes deny color."

Adults also need to tell the students that what they are doing is good, Cooper-Haber adds. It protects them against the many nay-sayers -- those who laugh at White kids beating drums, for example, as if drumming were a "Black thing." Or parents and teachers who reveal another kind of prejudice by calling harmony committee members "hippie kids."

A particularly big obstacle involves students and adults who refuse to acknowledge race as a relevant issue, perhaps because the absence of overt racial conflict sometimes passes for harmony.

"They don't see the private pain," says Cooper- Haber. And, she emphasizes, they don't realize that for personal growth, you need more than safety. "You need a climate of trust."

Take the segregation in cafeterias, offers CRC executive director Jesse Washington.

"It's not that students are mad at each other, that they had a fight, but that they haven't discovered the common bond. That is what we hope Building Cultural Bridges will do."

From the outset, leaders of the Bridges project have been careful not to assume that all teachers share a certain level of commitment to diversity issues. Teachers have prejudices, too, Washington notes, arguing that training in the Bridges curriculum should be part of teachers' re-certification process.

Such training also helps those already committed, as Airport's Gigi Dawson knows from personal experience: "Everybody always assumes that because you are a teacher, you can listen well. That's not necessarily so." "You try to get people to understand that they need to make all kids feel welcome and comfortable," adds Robinson.

Flora's parent-sponsor Mary Wesley observes that even parents who like the task force are often reluctant to show their support.

And sometimes, says Airport sponsor Byrd, the effort feels like swimming against the current. "We teach them about being tolerant, but if their parents don't agree, it can totally change what the kids think."

For all the open-mindedness that led them to join a task force in the first place, student members can discover stumbling blocks in their own attitudes.

"I guess I probably have prejudices about people in low income brackets," says Kelly Coleman, a Black student from Dreher who describes her family as well-to-do.

Airport's Anthony Wydman has learned that even his White classmates in cowboy gear who call themselves "rednecks" are "nice," despite the fact that they keep their distance from Black students like himself.

Claire Christian, a Dreher senior, came to realize that her negative image of "popular students" qualifies as a bias. And, she adds, "what really surprised me was that lots of people have encountered racial prejudice. Being White, I didn't hear about it."

 

Different Drummers

A racially motivated shooting at Airport High in 1995 caused no injuries, but it did prompt teacher Gigi Dawson to borrow the unity task force idea from Dreher. With the guidance of Bridges co-author and Dreher parent Tod Ewing, she organized Airport's own group, called "Living in Peace" or LIP.

"We purposely drew leaders from the groups that were fighting," Dawson says.

Something went very right after fliers condemning Black History Month appeared at the school in February 1996. LIP members intervened, helping the school keep its cool and sending the fliers into the trash cans.

Instead of emphasizing another act of campus racism, the local paper's headline was upbeat: "'Racist' Flier Crashes at Airport High." When LIP organized an assembly several days later to introduce itself to the student body, the group received a standing ovation -- twice.

Hundreds of Airport students and faculty have signed a giant poster that reads "Living in Peace -- Erase the Hate." A bulletin board in the main hall declares: "We Are Better Together," a Dreher slogan that has spread through the task force network.

During a lunch meeting -- the only time-slot available for clubs at Airport -- a dozen members gather to discuss plans for the next lunch jam. The weekly music-and-dance event, according to Gigi Dawson, embodies both the joys and the pitfalls of LIP's mission.

"Teenagers classify themselves by the music they listen to," she says. "One of my students explained it this way: Young people are so mobile today, and music is so portable, that their 'soundtrack' is one of the biggest things friends have in common." T-shirts and other paraphernalia, she points out, make the connections -- and the differences -- visible. "If we can get them to listen to other groups' music, then it might broaden their world.

Time pressure and competition with other activities keeps the Lunch Jam "up in the air" from week to week. Anyone can loan a CD for the mix, but Dawson reserves final approval. "There are songs out there that aren't appropriate for a school-sponsored event," she says.

Club members try to ensure musical diversity and racial balance, which isn't always easy. Dawson and the students usually decide whether to proceed or not on the Tuesday before the Friday session.

"We have more Black people than White people bringing music," Misha James, a Black student who is chairing the meeting, complains. "We need to deal with that."

Dawson offers her "Super Seventies" CD, then sings "Rock the Boat," and finally threatens to dance at the jam.

"No, you won't," a student tells her.

"I think you're stereotyping now," Dawson replies, "that White people can't dance."

"I'm not stereotyping White people. I'm stereotyping teachers!"

The "uncertainty factor" in many task force activities is a part of the discovery process that the group accepts and even welcomes. "Like so many things with teenagers, it's very touch-and-go," says Dawson. "Sometimes it doesn't work -- there's only one or two kinds of music. At the beginning of every session, it's just a boom-box, a microphone and people standing around. Maybe they take turns dancing to their own songs. Then, out of the blue, a country line dance will get them all up finding the beat."

Throughout Richland County, and indeed across the state, observes Bridges principal author Joby Robinson, the task force project is hitting its stride.

"Who would have thought, six years ago," she says, "that all these different groups of people would be working together? Not only are we 'getting along' -- we're having fun."

The Ripple Effect

Leaders in the South Carolina unity task force movement today trace its origins to the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

 

"The Rodney King incident really struck a chord," says Tod Ewing, whose daughter initiated the task force at Columbia's Dreher High that fall. "It resonated with tensions that we were experiencing here in South Carolina."

 

Across the state in Conway, teachers and students at an elementary school formed a harmony club for the same reason. Over the next several years, the Dreher and Conway examples fostered student organizations in other communities, and the ripples continue to spread.

 

"The biggest hurdle," notes Jesse Washington of the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, "involves getting superintendents and principals to buy into the program, to get full support for teachers to the point that they are relieved from cafeteria duty or bus duty because they are working with this group. We need not just endorsement, not just cooperation, but a commitment."

 

The challenge of translating rhetoric into action echoed across the Palmetto State in the late 1990s, as positive race relations became a pervasive theme. On December 1, 1997, South Carolina's Republican and Democratic party chairpersons declared in writing that "during my candidacy or term as public official I will refrain from using race or color -- whether by words, action or implication -- either to enhance my candidacy or to demean the candidacy of my opponents." The leaders are asking all candidates of their parties to sign the remarkable, perhaps even historic, pledge.

 

The changing climate has fostered some unexpected alliances. Former segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond advocated removing the Confederate battle flag from atop the State Capitol, as did a large sector of the business community. A Black Democratic state legislator sought legislation protecting Confederate monuments and street names, in addition to those honoring civil rights leaders. A White Republican legislator and staunch rebel flag defender co-chaired the commission to erect an African American monument on the Capitol grounds.

 

After a slow start, the Governor's Commission on Racial Relations recommended a "Team South Carolina" in each county to foster racial harmony. Among the commission's other proposals: unity task forces in all public schools; race relations training for law enforcement officers; a study of minority employment in government; and judicial guidelines for reducing disparity in sentencing for Blacks and Whites.

 

On other fronts, the South Carolina Progressive Network links scores of Black, White and interracial community organizations through meetings, newsletters and retreats. Communities of Faith United, which strives for racial understanding among the state's religious bodies, organized a quiet, interracial demonstration against the Confederate flag.

 

One local agency that has been especially active is the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council (CRC). Formed in the 1960s, the CRC initiated the recent bipartisan pledge and coordinates the student unity task forces.

 

Columbia area task forces are the education component of the CRC's "Six-Point Plan to Improve Race Relations," designed in 1993 to help shape South Carolina into a "beloved community." Other efforts target religious groups, the business community, media, law enforcement and neighborhoods.

 

Although race unity activities statewide have forged a unique coalition, their success remains difficult to measure. The Governor's Commission, for example, did not report the harsh words on race relations spoken by many who testified at its hearings.

 

In a more sobering reminder of a painful past, an African American church brought suit in 1998 against the South Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for the 1995 arson fire that destroyed its sanctuary.