Monday, March 29, 2010

Shedding Light on Night

Discussing hate and prejudice in school is never easy. Talking about these sensitive issues in a group with school board members, your classmates, and your mom can be even more uncomfortable.
However, the Palo Alto community has risen to the challenge in an effort to bring these issues out into the open.
School board member Barbara Klausner said she hopes to address issues of cultural understanding with an upcoming forum called "Growing Up Asian in Palo Alto" from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31, at the Mitchell Park Community Center.
Panelists and community members of all ethnicities will discuss cultural issues of increasing prominence, including perspectives on the importance of getting into college and other related topics.
Klausner's event will follow a successful community dialogue centered on anti-Semitism hosted by sophomores from David Cohen's Facing History and Ourselves classes.
The 10th grade classes led a community discussion on Wednesday night in the library in concurrence with their study of the controversial Holocaust book Night by Elie Wiesel.
"We are here to face the racism and prejudice that, no matter how much we try to ignore it, thrives here, even at Paly," sophomore Al Brooks said. He cited insensitive remarks by a past city official, the swastikas graffitied on the Tower Building in 2007, and even the tendency of Paly students to eat lunch in groups segregated by race.
Klausner, who was also a participant in the discussion, said she takes these issues very seriously.
"Al's comment, especially about how everyone knows where the Asian kids and the black kids and the Latino kids eat lunch, really worried me," Klausner said.
Cohen said he first got the idea for an evening of discussion and dialogue from a teacher in Georgia, who tried to plan a similar event but gave up.
"It's one of the missing pieces in my teaching — bringing it out of the classroom," Cohen said. "In a way, this was kind of my new years' resolution. It was also a good way to get to know my students."
In the months leading up to the event, students have posted blog entries, chronicling their planning process and ruminations on the book's graphic content.
Six group sessions followed the opening remarks, with different groups of students leading discussions and presentations of different aspects of the book. One of the smaller group sessions focused on confronting hate in the 21st century, especially in online interactions.
"A lot of people do it [post hateful messages] as a joke," sophomore Gerrit Gerritsen said. "After a while it starts to become acceptable."
The student leaders and the session participants both recognized some benefits of anonymity on the Internet, including how it can allow individuals to make information public in whistle-blower situations.
"The truth can sometimes sneak out," participant Nancy Greene said, referring to the photos of prison abuse in Abu Ghraib that came to people's attention through wide dissemination on the Internet, "but sometimes it needs to be anonymous."
However, the group also talked about the widespread abuse of technology and its role in perpetrating hate, especially in cultural contexts.
"The first person can say something without repercussions and because of the anonymity, people feel free to add on," Klausner said. "You can get this mob mentality that allows these things to happen.
"Eventually, you get to where is that point at which we can no longer keep going with that sense of human-ness. What's amazing about Wiesel is that he managed to maintain that humanity throughout the book."
Cohen said he is open to planning another event next year to continue community involvement, possibly with a different book.
"I've been thrilled with the outpouring of support," Cohen said. "I definitely want to continue in this direction."
This article was previously published in the Paly Voice.