By the age of 16, I had lived in three countries: Togo, Zimbabwe and the United States. I had spent more than half my life in French International Schools, with kids from around the world. The opportunity to live in environments where I was introduced to diverse people shaped my perception that everyone is equal and that people should be judged by their character, not by the things they can't control.
After arriving in the United States, it was clear my perspective on diversity was not shared by many of my classmates. My new friends sometimes made racist remarks and ethnic jokes. It has continued to bother me, and I challenge them about their comments and attitudes.
The year-long Operation Understanding DC program, which brings together African American and Jewish youths, enables its participants to learn more about each others' culture and past. By learning facts not taught in the classroom, meeting with important speakers and exchanging ideas, we learn to accept our differences and focus on our commonalities.
A few weeks ago, we returned from our civil rights journey from New York City to the deep South. It was a 25-day experience that changed my life and strengthened my resolve to overcome racial and cultural divisions.
We visited Greensboro, N.C., a city that has endured many citizen confrontations. At the Beloved Community Center, which strives to improve the community through economic and racial justice, we met Lewis Brandon. As a college student, Mr. Brandon joined the first sit-in to integrate Woolworth's segregated lunch counters on February 1, 1960. The six-month protest, started by four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University freshmen, served as a model for other demonstrations to desegregate in the South.
This example of dedication and comradeship from ordinary citizens was so striking to us that it resurfaced later in our journey during a late-night conversation. We were talking about the deplorable conditions many African Americans experience in the nation's capital: poor access to education, high unemployment and poverty rates, unsafe neighborhoods, etc. Though we did not reach a definitive plan of action, we accepted the reality that our generation has to make sacrifices in order for future black generations to succeed.
My classmates and I realized that we have big dreams and are blessed with the opportunities to make them a reality. We presently need to make commitments, though perhaps not as dramatic, that would serve as support for black communities. This would include supporting black-owned businesses, investing in community projects and providing opportunities to those who may not otherwise have them.
Nevertheless, it was during this same exchange of ideas that I began to evaluate my own loyalty to ameliorating conditions for minorities in the United Sates. Having been born in Togo, I questioned whether my actions needed to be focused toward a country where aid is desperately needed, or perhaps the general African continent. However, I concluded that I could not completely ignore problems in America, my adopted home. My goal is to do as much as possible to help disenfranchised communities in both Africa and the United States.
Another important aspect of the OUDC journey was learning more about Jewish culture. In New York City, we visited Boro Park, a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. The residents have their own shops, restaurants and a private emergency response unit. We also had the opportunity to visit many museums, such as the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta; attend services at Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues; and visit with members of dying Southern congregations.
Living in Montgomery County, which has a large Jewish population, this experience has provided me with a better understanding of the lives and culture of many of my classmates at Walter Johnson High School. Participating in Shabbos services every Friday and Havdalah each Saturday has helped me form a bond with the Jewish community.
As we wrapped up our journey at our hotel in Memphis, we were asked to think about how we can apply what we have learned to our own communities back in the Washington metropolitan area. About 13 percent of Walter Johnson High School is black, and a majority of the school is white. There is self-segregation that can easily be seen during lunchtime. By holding discussions addressing misconceptions of other groups in the school, I hope to open up a genuine dialogue of all students with the goal of decreasing the amount of racial separation.
Our group had the opportunity to facilitate a prejudice-reduction workshop with the campers at the Henry S. Jacobs Jewish summer camp in Utica, Miss. This experience, and the training in speechmaking and facilitation we will receive this fall, gives me confidence to undertake such a project at Walter Johnson.
Being part of OUDC, and having gone through this summer experience, I have been motivated to take action against racism and bigotry.
As simply stated by anti-death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson, the most important thing to do in life is to stand up and say, "I am here." By supporting each other, we can make the necessary changes to today's world.