|Students met at the public library in Kingsbridge, a “neutral environment.”|
Two years ago, Carter Hirschhorn of Closter, now 17, went to a program in Maine that brought him together with teens from conflicted regions around the world.
“I went to Seeds of Peace, connecting with teens from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, living for three weeks with these kids,” he said.
Engaging in team-building activities and spirited dialogues, “I learned about conflicts through the eyes of the people in them.” With exposure to a variety of different views, “I learned about conflict resolution. It was valuable to sit in a dialogue room with Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Israelis.”
When he came home, he continued to talk to friends from the camp, with whom he discussed “great foreign policy issues.” But he realized that there was something missing.
“I asked myself, what can I do right now?” Carter said. “I realized that there are issues in our own community, and I wanted to apply what I learned to the local community.”
Carter subsequently met with two teachers at his school – Riverdale Country Day School, a private school in the Bronx – as well as with the school’s community service director.
“I told them I wanted to develop a connection between Riverdale students and those in a public school in the Bronx, to talk about issues we don’t usually talk about every day, especially in school – issues like racial injustice, socioeconomic inequality, diversity, and interfaith relations,” he said. “Usually we hear opinions from teachers at one school. You get into a bubble. I wanted to learn from kids who learn differently.”
Emails were sent to a variety of schools, including the Marble Hill School for International Studies, a public school in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx that attracts students from more than 42 countries. Carter and his teachers heard back from Marble Hill.
“This added another cool element to the program,” Carter said. “We’d be not only having debates with another local public school, but also with people who have different backgrounds, but all in the common environment of the Bronx. We’re only a few miles apart.”
Thus was born “Breaking Borders: Connection, Reflection, and Action,” a program that not only connects the two schools but – Carter hopes – will identify and address the root causes of racial, socioeconomic, gender, and religious issues in the shared communities, and create and sustain relationships with other students in the local area.
Carter said his synagogue, Temple Beth El of Northern Valley, “is an environment that is very conductive to conversations like this – a place where they encourage questions about faith, and about different people. It’s a safe environment for people to ask questions.” He wants to bring this feeling to his program. “I want to apply it to things like this, where we’re pushing ourselves to ask questions and establish a safe environment,” he said. While his point of departure stems from Jewish beliefs, “we must acknowledge that others have their beliefs as well,” he added.
He said his program will be structured “with three columns: connection, reflection, and action. First, we want to connect, as students, to discuss issues of importance to the community. Under the ‘reflection’ column we would go out into the Bronx, visiting museums and people in the community and then discussing the issues we find most prevalent.” Topics for discussion will be student-generated.
The group already has met once and is gearing up for a second meeting, to be held at Riverdale. Twenty-two students, mostly juniors and seniors and “pretty evenly divided between the schools,” attended the first time, and about the same number are expected at the second gathering.
“The first meeting was at the Kingsbridge library, near both our schools,” Carter said. “We wanted at least the first meeting to be in a neutral environment – not about Riverdale or Marble Hill but a bunch of teens from different backgrounds who are so close together but never met.”
Communication between participants from both schools has been frequent, Carter said, noting that he and two other Riverdale students are “constantly in contact” with their counterparts at Marble Hill.
“We’re in the process of talking about what we want to do,” he said, adding that he’d like to “build off what we talked about last time, starting with team-building activities to get everyone comfortable.”
For example, he said, “we might make a couple of statements and then align ourselves depending on whether we agree or disagree.” At the last meeting, students told each other about their schools, what they liked and what they didn’t like.
“It was good in bringing the students together,” Carter said. “We found commonalities and differences. [For example] they have students from all over. Riverdale [students are] primarily Manhattan-based.”
The teen said the group still has to figure out a way to extend its discussions into action, whether through community service projects or by creating a new program “to allow students in other schools to talk about these issues.” He hopes that at future meetings the group can work on specific things, making progress on action-based initiatives.
“It’s definitely coming together as I envisioned,” he said, adding that his initial fear was that no other school would be interested. “But I found that when I presented it to Riverdale and Marble Hill, there was tremendous enthusiasm.”
Looking forward to next steps, Carter said the venture definitely has been successful.
“To achieve a sense of broad knowledge and multi-perspective views, you need to go outside your school and get as many views as you can,” he said. “People want to talk, and they have strong beliefs. The next part is not just to share but to listen to someone else’s beliefs.” That, he acknowledged, is sometimes hard. “When there are very contrasting views, how do you accept both and find a compromise?”
He hopes to bring more schools on board. “We’re making great progress, but we want to get in on a larger scale,” he said.
The next meeting will focus on the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, as well as on the terrorist attacks in Paris.
“It’s all relevant to our community,” Carter said.