Conference tries to open eyes, minds

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 29, 2005

"She's a fat heifer." "He's a complete skank." "They're such hillbilly rednecks."

Yesterday, Lawrence County students were saying some very bad things for some very good reasons at the third annual People to People Conference.

Students representing nearly all local high schools gathered at Ohio University Southern yesterday to confront hurtful phrases such as these at the conference, as well as other damaging racial and religious stereotypes to attempt to find the causes and cures of the prejudices that they and their peers carry.

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Parents who have had to pull teeth to get their children to talk about their school day may be giggling up their sleeves at the notion of students eagerly discussing tough issues such as racism.

But Robert Pleasant, Coordinator of the Youth Opportunity Program, which presented the event in conjunction with OUS and The Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice, said that the key to getting teens to open up is all in the presentation.

"It all depends on how you do it," Pleasant said. "We do it in a fun way. Other young people are facilitating the sessions, conducting them, and doing the activities. We do it in a way that is fun, but also has a great message to it.

"We want to try to create a community that is built on harmony, but in order to that we have to have a dialogue. So what we do here is have a discussion with the kids, actually, they do it themselves, they start talking about different issues that affect their lives and their communities."

Brandy Malone, an agricultural science senior at Collins Career Center, was one of those student facilitators at the conference. She said that being involved was important for her to open the eyes of her peers to stereotyping in schools.

"Racism and prejudice is a problem in schools," Malone said. "Like the way white kids talk to black kids sometimes is just wrong. I think this gets everybody together and shows them how it affects other people, and opens their eyes to what's going on in the outside world."

Fairland High School junior Laura Wilson said that she had already gotten a lot out of the morning activities, and looked forward to what the afternoon would teach her.

"I think it's a great way to open teenagers' minds about people from different backgrounds and different races," Wilson said. "I've learned that you can't judge a person based on what they look like, because there's a whole lot more to a person than just what you see."

Some students had more personal reasons for wanting to be a facilitator at the People to People conference. Sarah Stevens is a ninth-grader at Dawson-Bryant High School who was fed up with the way one of her African-American friends was being treated, and was looking for a way to start making a difference.

"I want to teach people that there is prejudice in schools," Stevens said. "There are people who get made fun of, who get beat up because of their race. I've heard people make comments about black people, and it offends me deeply. I mean, why are you going to treat someone differently just because of their skin color?"

Of course, neither the instruction of Brandy Malone nor the passion of Sarah Stevens can help change student perceptions if the lessons of the conference aren't taken to heart. Pleasant was happy to report that he doesn't feel that's a problem with his conference which urges students, in the immortal words of James Brown, to "get up, get into it, and get involved."

"What we hear from schools and different organizations is that they're really pleased with what the students are coming back with," Pleasant said. "We like for students to take back what they learn and create programs in their schools as well to help continue the conversation that we have here today."

Laura Wilson was one of those students who had been moved by the teaching of the conference, not just emotionally moved, but moved to action.

"I think it can help if it's brought to the attention of more people than just certain groups," Wilson said. "I think we'll be able to go back to our schools and really make a difference."