Middle schoolers tackle diversity issues

On two consecutive Thursdays this month, chaperones from nine middle schools in Schenectady County are shepherding groups of 12 students to St. Gabriel's Church in Rotterdam to discuss racism and devise plans of action to bring diversity awareness back to their schools, as part of a program called Schenectady County Embraces Diversity, or SCED.

SCED was created in 1998 by a group of local organizations in response to a shooting that occurred in Albany County by a Schenectady County man solely based on race. The goal of SCED is to explore and celebrate the diversity of those who live in Schenectady County. This is partly done through study circles, where groups come together to discuss topics that include education, racism, public policy and urban sprawl.

There's a general process where you can plug in any community issue if you can generate enough people to have discussions and take action, said Brian Wright, executive director of Schenectady County Human Rights Commission and one of the founders of SCED.

SCED started out as a program catering to adult groups, but soon expanded to high school groups, and, upon request of the high school students, it eventually opened to middle school groups. The program emphasizes the point that members from the whole community are welcome and needed to make the program work and to create lasting change in the community.

"One of the comments that we got from the high school program was that this kind of program needed to start earlier," said Wright.

Currently, nine middle schools representing nine districts in the county participate. Overall, more than 2,000 people have participated, 300 of those middle schoolers.

In the Thursday program took place Oct. 23 and will meet again Oct. 30, middle school students and their chaperones of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds will work in small groups led by volunteer facilitators, who play a crucial role in the process. After they are selected, volunteers are instructed on how to lead a conversation and how to stay objective.

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