Be the Change

Absegami junior Anna Saunders (facing), Amber Atkinson, a senior, and Giovanni Nunez, a junior, all from Galloway, embrace after an emotional talk session during the workshop.

Dale Gerhard

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Sophomore Ryann Guy and senior Carlos Galeano, both of Galloway Township, waited for the start of a daylong “Be the Change Day” workshop designed to combat prejudice at Absegami High School last week. They were not sure what to expect.

Guy said she signed up because she heard it was a powerful experience, from students who had been through previous workshops. This was the fifth one at the school in the last three years.

 “I heard there is a lot of crying,” she said.

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“That’s what girls tell me,” agreed Galeano, part of a group of about 100 students and a sprinkling of faculty and staff participating. “A lot of crying.”

Part of the Lead for Diversity program from the American Conference on Diversity, based in New Brunswick, Middlesex  County, the workshop creates a sense of community among a wide variety of students, faculty and staff.

 By making a safe space for them to open up to each other, through bonding exercises and group sharing activities, they see that their similarities outweigh their differences, said Supervisor of Guidance and Library Bob Quinn.

The goal is to increase tolerance of differences in race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and abilities.

“In general, the idea in the past has been to invite kids who could benefit from this type of experience,” said Quinn.  “We get a good mix of kids who have experienced those types of issues (such as bullying) and need to feel support; and kids who might be doing those kinds of behaviors, so they will be more aware of how they affect others.”

Student leaders called delegates are trained to help facilitate the workshop during a weeklong summer retreat. They help teachers and staff members run it.

“We have talked about different ideas for next year, like running an entire grade level through,” Quinn said, because of the positive response of participants. He said the school has applied for a $2,200 grant from the local Ralph W. Martin Foundation to do four workshops next year. It would pay for general supplies, lunch for all participants and help pay for summer training of new delegates, he said.

Adults are an important part of the mix.

Principal Jeri-Lynn Gatto was among the faculty and staff participating. She was Jeri-Lynn to everyone that day, instead of Dr. Gatto.

“Today, everyone is the same,” said physical education and health teacher Elizabeth Lee, as she got the day started. “We call each other by first names. People in this room are going to bond with people they have never spoken to before in their lives. Many of you will look at teachers and administrators differently.”

Lee then led the group in coming up with rules for behavior. Students called out how they wanted everyone to treat each other, with words like respect, good vibes, honesty, friendship and love. And they wanted confidentiality.

“I have never heard one person talk about what happens in this room, and about 400 students have come through (the program),” Lee said, while underlining that confidentiality is a bedrock requirement.

The first small group exercise had everyone write a negative label they have been given by others on a piece of tape, which they put on their chests. Then they wrote a positive label, representing their real selves or what they wanted to become, which they put on their backs. At the end of the day, the negative label got ripped off and the positive remained.

Some of the negative labels shared in one group were: annoying, stupid, nerdy, awkward, freak, fat, old. The positive qualities they wanted more people to see were fun, easygoing, happy, caring, respectful, creative, contributor.

There were also physical games, such as a version of musical chairs, and lots of high- and low- fiving as people switched seats regularly to make sure everyone talked to a wide variety of people.

Speakers included  freshman Chris Cruz, who has been blind since birth. He shared how frustrating it is when people assume he is lost when walking in school. He uses a walking stick and is fine, as long as people don’t force him to change the route he memorized, he said.

 “I’m not disabled,” Cruz said, adding he is famous on You Tube for his Bop It playing. “I just have an inability to see.”

Delegate and senior Donny Patel, whose aunt died in the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings when Patel was in first grade, said she endured years of being called a terrorist because of her Indian ethnicity. She cried when she remembered the trauma of the terrorist attack and its aftermath.

Teacher Lydia Sneed, who is biracial, recounted how the prejudice of a friend’s mother hurt her when she was a child. And Gatto talked about the challenge of being a woman in a job traditionally held by men.

Senior Josh Fabel, 18, described his journey from insecurity to confidence as a gay man. Before he came out as gay, he said people spread rumors and called him names.

“People judged me and gave me a lot of crap,” he said. In middle school he was kicked out of his lunch table, and friends abandoned him because of his perceived sexual orientation.

In his sophomore year, he became a Lead for Diversity delegate, and “I started to open up,” he said. By junior year he was able to come out to his immediate family and found acceptance there. Now that he’s out, far fewer negative comments are directed toward him, he said.

“Five years ago, I was afraid to say who I was,” he said. “Now I’m president of our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance,” Fabel said.

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