At one cultural awareness workshop, a teacher stood before her black students and shattered their stereotypical notions about her. Yes, she was white, but the childhood life of poverty that she described was filled with more deprivation than anything they had ever heard of, let alone experienced.
Never again would those students be able to write off all whites as rich bigots.
In another workshop, a black student envied by many because of her extraordinary popularity destroyed for her white classmates the myth that racism no longer exists. Recently, she told them, her family had gone to a restaurant for dinner -- and left after they were ignored by waiters.
Everyday stories of personal experience, conveyed under the supervision of student mediators in several D.C. public schools, are changing the way diverse cultural and racial groups view each other.
The Students Helping with Alternative Resolution Program, or SHARP, as it is called, could be among the best things to happen for the youth of this city in years.
At a monthly meeting of the Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution, held Tuesday at the Sumner School in Northwest Washington, a group of student conflict mediators from Wilson High School introduced educators from the Washington area to the concept.
Developed by Building Bridges Inc., of Boston, the workshops are designed to help students identify and share their feelings about other ethnic and racial groups.
The process is nothing less than an effort to root out deeply embedded prejudices, which students sometimes are not even aware have been inflicted upon them.
Misinformation about ethnic and racial groups is identified through the workshops. Pride in the group that each participant belongs to is explored. How groups are mistreated and what the effect of that is gets discussed.
"I was skeptical about whether such a concept could work because our class was so divided," said Reginald Robinson, 16, a junior at Wilson High and a workshop mediator. "But when we had finished, I saw people who would not talk civilly suddenly crying and holding hands. It was the most touching thing I have ever seen in my life so far."
At Wilson, the workshops will be conducted by Robinson, Mary Glenshaw, 16, Maia Eaglin, 17, Giovanna Torrico, 17, and Nia Graham, 16. They all have been trained by SHARP, which began as a conflict resolution program for public school students.
"The students were successfully mediating individual disputes, but were discovering a lot of underlying problems -- such as stereotyping and racial insensitivity," said Edna Povich, program director for the Center for Dispute Settlement, a nonprofit organization that supports the SHARP program.
"What had been happening among the students was a clash of belief systems -- and it's very hard to change those," said Kathleen Owen, the SHARP coordinator for Wilson High. "But when you get them to talk about their feelings, the response is different from talking about ideas. You talk about yourself, and soon people begin to realize that all groups have the same feelings."
Many students are initially intrigued by the arrival of immigrant students to their schools, student mediators say. Unfortunately, their efforts to get to know the newcomers better are blocked by preventable blunders.
When asked where their prejudiced notions about others had come from, the mediators say, most students blame the media, their parents, church and school.
"All of us are born innocent, and these things are programmed into us against our will," Glenshaw said. "These workshops expose our prejudices to the light of reason."
At present only five D.C. schools are following Wilson's lead by developing such cultural awareness workshops. Yet, here is a program that should be implemented in every District school. If ever there were a way to turn the obstacle of prejudice into the steppingstone of cultural exchange, this is it.