Diversity, Identity, Stereotypes, and Action: Engaging Young People Today

For the past several years,  I have directed an annual workshop for local youth in Rockville, Maryland.  The event is sponsored by the City of Rockville, Maryland’s Human Rights Commission, of which I was a member and chair for several years.   I’ve continued to volunteer my time for the workshop.   Working with youth today, in light of campaigns such as Me Too  and March of Our Lives,  is more important than ever before.

Generally, we attract between 15-30 students, mostly high school age from schools in the area.   This year’s program was held this past Saturday, April 21, 2018 at Montgomery College.   We had about 15 students from schools including a few college students.  The title of the workshop every year is the same “Building Bridges in a Diverse Society,” but the content changes  somewhat every year to reflect what students are looking for and the current political and social climate.  Last year’s workshop focused on nonviolent action.  This year’s workshop tended to look at the various forms of diversity and the impact of stereotypes.

Watching Google video on bias

We engaged the students in a range of activities taking an experiential approach.  The best way for students to learn is to get them involved in the activities directly, and at times, determine the direction of the workshop.

Our first activity looked at diversity.   Here try to get them to think more deeply than the typical categories of race, ethnicity, religion, etc.   Our county is very diverse and for the most part supports traditional diversity notions well.   But we often don’t think about diversity in terms of economic differences, differences in living situations,  family situations, psychological  disabilities, sexual orientation, and other ways, that are at times not so obvious, that we differ from each other.   Some of these differences are hidden, often by intent.  For instance: being homeless might not something that a young person wants to reveal.  But it is a form of diversity.  In this exercise, after we celebrate more traditional types of diversity and differences (number of languages spoken, or ethnic/cultural background), we assign more subtle and often hidden forms of diversity to students in a role play.   Students then reveal themselves in character as dealing with autism, or changing sexual identity, or dealing with family abuse.   They then write all the various forms of identity on post-its and stick them on our “diversity person.”


Diversity person

Other activities we engaged in include skit development, where we assign a group of students a situation, such as bullying, and ask them to develop a skit on how to respond.  We also engaged in some creative writing through poetry and using paper plates developed a “symbol” for ourselves.   At one point, we had discussions about common stereotypes and how they impact us, and looked at internalized oppression.  The final activity is getting students to commit to making change by doing something at their schools the following week.  I emphasize small things that can be done like reaching out to someone different from themselves.


Talking about identity


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Skit development

The hope is that young people will come to appreciate their differences, which can take multiple forms, and then look to build bridges based on them to advance common causes and deal with social and political challenges.

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Student crafted mission statement

Students reading the mission statement they developed is below (video).





Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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