January 22, 2016
The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, hit Rhoda Kahn Nussbaum hard. “I felt very defeated,” said the ADL St. Louis resident and longtime civil rights advocate. “I saw progress in civil rights either plateauing or slipping.”
Ms. Nussbaum felt she needed to do something to jump-start the movement again. “I wanted to help create the next generation of social activists.”
To cultivate them, she helped fund an annual ADL mission that prepares a select group of high school student leaders to pursue social justice. Because of Ms. Nussbaum and her husband, Samuel’s, contributions and fundraising, ADL St. Louis was able—for the first time in years—to send 10 students on the mission.
The St. Louis teens joined 122 more from around the country in Washington, DC, for the 18th ADL Grosfeld Family National Youth Leadership Mission: an all-expenses paid journey to the heart of hate and courage.
Designed by ADL’s education experts, the mission brings together high school juniors representing a diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and socioeconomic levels. For some, that alone was a revelation. “I live in a community that’s not very diverse at all, and ADL has allowed me to experience diversity,” said Sam Seckler from the New England delegation.
Many of the teens had already joined forces with ADL to stop bias and bullying in their schools, or performed related volunteer work in their communities. But what they all shared in common was a strong desire to make the world a better place.
The mission developed those feelings over three-and-a-half packed days. Guided by ADL facilitators, the students explored the qualities of effective leadership; examined prejudice and its impact in others and themselves; heard Holocaust survivors tell their stories; learned about people who stood up to hate at ADL’s Concert Against Hate at the Kennedy Center; visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; looked at contemporary examples of prejudice and genocide; and developed strategies to challenge bias in their own lives. The overarching theme: bias and hate can grow to horrific heights, but individuals have the power—and responsibility—to stop them by speaking out. They just need the courage to do it.
The centerpiece of the mission, a tour of the Holocaust Museum, showed the students how the Holocaust developed over time and its devastating impact. The early-morning visit, when the students had the museum to themselves, was highly emotional. “Many of them were shell-shocked,” said Ms. Nussbaum, who was there as a chaperone. “Either they were very quiet, or they wanted to go through it alone. Or they were teary.”
Jewish students, too, made discoveries. “An exhibit called ‘They Were Neighbors’ showed that while Jews, blacks, Jehovah’s witnesses, gays and others were being deported each day to go to the camps, people watched them, watched all the tanks and gunmen, and did not say a word,” said Margaux Schexnider of New Orleans, whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. “This trip taught me that being a bystander is just as bad as being an offender.”
The students heard from Holocaust survivors Nesse Godin, who inspired them with her story of resilience, and Marione Ingram, who came to America and became an ardent civil rights activist. “Bringing all those people who survived genocides like the Holocaust, just being able to hear their stories and feel the courage they had, it makes me want to be a better person,” said Takuilani Fifita, a Pacific Islander with the ADL Denver delegation. “It’s given me more courage.”
A series of activities took the students all the way from exploring their own biases, to what it feels like to be the object of bias, to the reality of global genocide. “You could see them grow, evolve, form bonds,” said Naomi Mazin, Director of Special Projects for ADL’s Education Division. “Delegates who’d experienced bullying or bias realized they aren’t the only targets of discrimination. They developed the desire and ability to stand up for each other.”
Andy Marquez, a member of the Los Angeles delegation and a first-generation American whose family came from El Salvador, got the message. “We have to understand each other in order to move forward,” he said. “Some of us today are being held down as a result of the weight of social burdens, but part of being a leader is recognizing that we need to take the weight off each other’s backs and place them on our own. I never had this mindset before.”
On the final day of the mission, ADL Washington Counsel Michael Lieberman told the delegates that social change doesn’t come easily: it takes time and persistence by a lot of people working together. “Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Do you think it bends by itself,” he asked. “No. People push on it.” Even if they couldn’t be the absolute leaders of an initiative, Mr. Lieberman said, they could be part of a team, and ADL would help them.
Now home, all the delegates are developing projects to share what they learned with others. Students from New Orleans are planning a dance featuring Latino music to bring African American students closer to the Latino newcomers in their school. The Washington, DC, delegation is arranging to take classmates through anti-bias activities and the Holocaust Museum. And the St. Louis group is planning a fundraiser for ADL’s initiative to improve state responses to hate crimes, #50StatesAgainstHate.
Ms. Nussbaum is pleased. “I really believe these students are going back to their communities and will have an impact,” she said. “I think they’re going to make anti-bias work a priority in the next year-and-a-half. On the most fundamental level, we had a very diverse group of students who are now close, genuine friends.”
A participant from St. Louis describes what the mission was like for her.