In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Anti-Defamation League and Siena College partnered up on Friday, Jan. 14, to provide a venue for young people to reflect on the tenets the civil rights leader preached.
The STOP Conference, or Students Together Opposing Prejudice, is a component of the Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture Series put on by Siena College, and involved students from all over the Capital District coming together to explore the different facets of prejudice and how to promote diversity.
This is the college’s sixth year holding the conference, and it is the ADL’s third year being involved.
Mechanicville High School students Austin Bryant, a senior, and Kabe McClenents, a sophomore, the activities they took part in that day taught them to think before they speak.
People are more ignorant than they should be, said Bryant. `Everybody has their own difficulties and their own problems. To harp on that and annoy them about it just adds more to their plate, which they really don’t deserve.`
McClenents referred to `the Golden Rule` and said it is important to think about it when interacting with others.
`Treat others how you would like to be treated and not to disrespect people for how they choose to live,` he said.
Bryant said that he used to use the word `gay` quite freely and not think of the consequences that come with it, but he said now he realizes how much it can hurt and offend people.
`I kind of just used that as lingo,` he said. `Of course, it means something else, and it might hurt people.`
ADL’s A World of Difference Institute Coordinator Kate Jackett was on hand at the conference to help facilitate the day’s events. She said the organization prefers to use the word `respect` as opposed to `tolerance` when it comes to dealing with prejudice and diversity.
`Respect is a higher form of appreciation for another person,` she said. `Often people might say they tolerate someone. It tends to give a connotation of just putting up with someone, and we try to move beyond just putting up with someone and actually respecting them and understanding where they come from.`
The event, geared at middle school and high school students from around the region, was held at Siena to give the young people a chance to experience the environment of a college campus. With universities sometimes serving as the melting pot for various cultures, Jackett said it is important to expose children to different ways of life as early as possible.
`At any age level, it’s important to expose students to all kinds of diversity and give them the opportunity to experience diversity in all its forms,` she said. `We take a very broad spectrum approach to the concept of diversity. Often when we think of diversity we think of the visual diversity such as skin color, race and ethnicity, or perceived race and ethnicity, but often there might be layers of diversity that are hidden below the surface.`
This would include components such as socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, so opening students up to different situations of diversity would allow them to process these differences and be able to recognize them, said Jackett.
Dr. Peter Ellard, chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture Series at Siena, said the conference lets the college see what high school students are experiencing at their own schools and it helps students understand Siena’s sincerity in promoting diversity.
`They get to understand that we’re serious about this,` he said. `This is a very important issue, and we take their experiences as very important ones.`
During the day, students were separated into different classrooms where they participated in workshops. Eric Eisenstein, a trainer for the ADL, helped facilitate activities that placed students in cultures other than their own.
`We basically have them take an identity that is not their own and discuss with other people in the room how that new identity would affect their lives and how things would be different,` he said.
Another activity had students stand up and introduce themselves to one another using a greeting from a different culture and having them come back and reflect on either how it felt to act out the greeting or how it felt to receive it.
`We ask how they felt in terms of their comfort when they did that,` he said. `Were they uncomfortable? Why were they uncomfortable? What were the differences? And how would they feel if somebody greeted them in a different way and what would have their reactions been?`
As part of the conference, students’ artwork was on display in the Sarazen Student Union. Many of the pictures featured King, President Barack Obama, as well as the artists’ visions of world peace. Ellard said he noticed a lot of connections between environmental conservation and what students believe King would be doing to combat global warming.
`They wrote things like, ‘If Martin Luther King Jr. were here today, he would be having sit-ins, marches and speeches to protest the destruction of the environment,’` he said, adding they would be the same tactics used by King to effect change during the Civil Rights era. `The suffering that goes on with the environment, the degradation against the planet and how that affects people, as well as the rest of the planet, that’s tied right in with social justice.`
The correlation between environmental degradation and civil rights is the reason why Siena has invited Van Jones, former White House environmental advisor, to speak at its spring lecture on April 7, where he will discuss the green economy and green jobs.
`What we’re trying to do is connect the dots between issues of the environment, issues of prejudice and issues of social justice, because they’re all tied together,` said Ellard.
To see what other events Siena will be hosting for its lecture series, visit www.siena.edu/mlk for the 2011 event list.“