At Va. School Cafeteria, It's Fine to Mix It Up
Breaking Bread and Barriers at Lunch

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008

Although Barack Obama's election last week as the 44th president broke a racial barrier at the highest level of political power, one place in American society remains almost as segregated as ever: school cafeterias.

Racial and ethnic divisions aren't as strong as they once were, but they remain noticeable. That's what the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center is trying to change. Yesterday, hundreds of schools across Maryland, Virginia and the District participated in a nationwide event the center sponsors to persuade students to change their habits and sit with new people. The Mix It Up program, involving an estimated 10,000 schools, has tripled in size since its inception six years ago.

But a look inside a Prince William County high school showed that habits can be hard to break. Gar-Field Senior High School in Woodbridge is certainly diverse: A third of its students are African American, a third Latino, a quarter white, 10 percent Asian. But integration doesn't always mean interaction.

"Everybody sits at the same table every day," said Brittney Reed, 15, an African American sophomore at Gar-Field. She had seated herself in a new part of the cafeteria, with a diverse group of students, but she gazed at a room that elsewhere seemed stereotypically divided: khaki-clad white teens bunched in one corner, a group of Latino kids at another table speaking Spanish, African American basketball players in the downstairs part of the lunchroom. Barriers weren't absolute, but they were there.

Several students wearing blue "Mix It Up" T-shirts worked the room, urging students to move outside of their usual social groups. Most stayed right where they were.

Brittney said she was glad to sit with new people.

"I think it does make a little bit of difference," she said, and added that she would have more people to greet in the hallways. But she didn't know if the change would be permanent.

"Tomorrow, it'll probably be like it was before," she said.

Some schools have tried unusual tactics to break barriers, including forcing students to arrange themselves based on their birth month. One Montgomery County school hired a DJ yesterday to promote the theme of inclusion. Gar-Field's voluntary method showed just how hard it can be to shake people out of their habits.

School social worker Tonya Iverson said that she had considered giving students cards for assigned seating, but decided against it because she thought people would switch to be with their friends. Still, "I see a lot of growth," said Iverson, who graduated from Gar-Field in the early 1990s and has worked there for eight years. "You used to hear a lot of racial slurs, a lot of tension," and that is no longer the case, she said.

That's one of the aims of the program, its creators say.

"Social science research tells us pretty clearly that the thing that works best to reduce prejudice is social contact," said Jennifer Holladay, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program. "Even as a symbolic event, it really can change the way young people make assumptions about each other."

Yesterday's event launched the year-long tolerance program, which aims to take advantage of the historic election of the first black president by teaching greater inclusion.

"With the Obama election, there are so many things that are going to unfold," Holladay said. "We certainly celebrate the symbol of what his ascension to the highest office means . . . but we can't take that to mean that the days of fighting racism are over."

Some students at Gar-Field said they broke their habits in ways that might last.

Ayyaz Amjad, 17, of South Asian descent, hopped from table to table throughout his 25-minute lunch period.

"I've met a lot of new people, and I can sit with them now," he said. "When I see people in the hallway, I'll talk with them."

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