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FEATURE

Talking Across Boundaries

Follow student activists as they Mix It Up at their schools.
Photography by Valerie Downes

Mix It Up's three-year track record has shown that many, many students want to create safe spaces on their campuses for honest dialogue about their experiences with exclusion, prejudice and the social pressures that come with being teenagers. Here are some of their stories.

Fifteen-year-old Tyler McCall holed himself up in his room for longer than normal, surfing the Internet. He wanted to do something big, something that would have an impact on students at Transylvania County's rival high schools, Rosman and Brevard. Living in rural western North Carolina, near the South Carolina border, Tyler had attended both schools and wanted to bridge the divide. So while his dad watched television and his mother talked on the phone, Tyler pressed the "download" button and began airing his community's dirty laundry.

Tyler McCall profile photo
Tyler McCall was awarded a Mix It Up grant to create a dialogue group at Rosman High School

He wrote about racism, isolation, stereotypes, boundaries and rivalries — and about wanting to take action against them. He hoped a small amount of money — a mini-grant from Mix It Up — would make a big difference at the two schools.

At Rosman, Tyler wrote in his grant application, "a person of a different religion, sexual orientation, or race is not usually accepted." Tyler also wrote about an "awful rivalry that has been alive since the '50s" between Rosman and Brevard.

With fewer than 30,000 residents, Transylvania County has seven elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools. Rosman High School, with about 350 students, is virtually 100 percent white. Brevard High School, with about 750 students, is more diverse, about 93 percent white — the same percentage as the county. The schools have been warring against each other, playing mischievous, sometimes hurtful pranks — spray-painted vandalism and the like — for as long as anyone can remember. Tyler first attended Brevard and now attends Rosman.

Tyler got his grant and used it to cover the cost of food and promotional materials for dialogue groups — his idea, based on past experience, of what might most help students overcome social boundaries.

 

'Being Judged is Not Fun'

Hundreds of miles away in Gulfport, Miss., teacher and guidance counselor Rose Pouriraji was looking for support to help her address a core need of Central Middle School students — the creation of a safe space to talk about the pressures of being teens. In January she was awarded a $500 Mix It Up grant to create a "teen dialogue" area on the second floor of the school's library. She furnished the area with a leather couch, a striped sofa, beanbag chairs with local college insignias, a television and VCR.

Amy Schoenacher profile picture
Amy Schoenacher teacher at Rosman High School

This week, two dialogue groups are using the space, one for 7th-grade girls and another for 6th-grade boys. The dialogue sessions are electives, part of the students' daily regimens of history, math and science classes.

For one session, Pouriraji's 7th-grade girls bound through the library and sprawl across the sofas and beanbags. Draping their limbs over each other, they settle in for discussion.

Already the 10 girls, in their second dialogue session with Pouriraji, have identified the cliques in their school: the popular kids, the jocks, the smart kids and the gangs. They've also set the ground rules: no names, no gossip and no jumping on the beanbags.

The girls share stories of conflicts over boys, over clothes and over their mothers, taking note of their differing opinions and responses. Shelby Lewis says a classmate teased her for days. The student insulted Shelby's mother, a tremendous offense that Shelby did not know how to handle. The conflict resolution skills she's learning in Pouriraji's class will help her negotiate rough spots in the future, she says.

"I wish we could do this every day," says Kayla Howard.

Perched atop beanbags in their dialogue session, Pouriraji's 6th-grade boys also discuss the rough spots. One boy says other students call him "dumb." Another says people ridicule the darkness of his skin. "Being judged is not fun," another student says.

Dekarlos Evers seems to speak for them all when he says, "This class should be mandatory."

 

'A Safe Space'

Back in North Carolina, John Fenner, director of Brevard's Center for Dialogue, has spent more than a decade helping adults and teens resolve conflicts stemming from racial tensions.

The need for such talk was obvious; shortly after Fenner moved to Brevard, the Ku Klux Klan marched through town. Fenner feels the town has come a long way since then, but old grudges languish stubbornly as young residents like Tyler struggle toward change.

Tyler's plan initially included students at rival Brevard, but student leaders there, bogged down with other activities, declined to participate. The dialogues at Rosman included 22 students, fewer than he'd initially hoped would participate but a start nonetheless.

Another of Tyler's adult allies, Fred Reidinger, introduced him to dialoguing through Youth Speak, a community dialogue group for teens. At Youth Speak, drugs, violence, race and unhealthy dating relationships were all on the table.

Rosman High School Mix It Up dialogue group meeting
Rosman High School Mix It Up dialogue group met regularly to discuss issues such asa racism, prejudice and ostracism

"The biggest problem is how do you create a safe space for all of them (to talk)," Reidinger says.

A group of Rosman students, taking a break from classes, gathers in one of the school's glossy-tabled conference rooms to discuss what brought them to the dialogues. They met twice a week for a month in art teacher Amy Schoenacher's paint-splattered classroom amid the acrylic, sculpture and watercolor works-in-progress.

With mild supervision from Schoenacher, the students found they were able to speak freely about topics too taboo for everyday conversation.

"I felt I was being listened to. ... (I)t felt like people were giving me input, but they weren't cutting me off or putting down what I had to say," says Katy Young, 16.

Participants say the dialogues have made them more compassionate, less likely to stereotype, more respectful of differences. They continue to meet in dialogue groups between school play rehearsals, sports and other after school activities.

"I believe the project was a success," Tyler says. "It was a first step toward getting rid of cliques and stereotyping at my school."