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Local students inspired by BRIDGES conference that aims to foster tolerance

Lisa Coronejo and Alejandra Canizales, both 16-year-old students at Newport Harbor High School, were talking about the workshop they had just gone to called "Mirror Mirror."

The girls-only workshop, put on by Girls Inc. of Orange County, a nonprofit organization based in Costa Mesa, addressed societal standards as it aimed to inspire young women to embrace their inner beauty and learn to speak up for themselves.

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The workshop started with participants looking at themselves for a full minute in a compact mirror.

"How do we define beauty? When we look in the mirror, why is the first thing we do pull out our imperfections?" asked Beth Payne of Girls Inc.

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The lesson was all part of "Walk in My Shoes," the topic of a conference sponsored by OC Human Relations, a nonprofit agency whose mission is to foster mutual understanding and eliminate intolerance.

Last month's daylong symposium, known as the BRIDGES Youth Conference, has been held biannually for 25 years, bringing together student leaders from high schools all over Orange County to explore issues of identity and culture, develop leadership skills, and spur thinking about being informed, active participants in the community.

BRIDGES is OC Human Relations' biggest program, with chapters in 15 Orange County high schools, including Fountain Valley High, Newport Harbor High, Huntington Beach High and, also in Huntington Beach, Marina High School.

Hundreds of students gathered at the Titan Student Union at Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 18 as keynote speaker Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly editor, challenged them to care about what's going on in the world and to be a part of the solution.

Students could choose, from among a sizable selection, three hourlong workshops to attend. The topics covered included preventing campus violence, identifying modern-day slavery and being a leader at school, inclusive of all gender identities, races and faiths.

The Youth and Faith workshop, hosted by the Interfaith Youth Council of Orange County, talked about partnering with interfaith communities to allow open-minded, respectful dialogue. Youth Empowered to Act, part of the LGBT Center Orange County, held games that challenged stereotypes of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

"Diversity can bring tension, but it doesn't have to be destructive," said Francisco Marmolejo, president of the OC Human Relations Board of Directors and a retired Irvine Valley College professor. "This event is so pivotal because it taps into the energy that naturally exists with youth — they are the primary causes of hope for the future.

"Here we are, in very trying times, and you look at these young people and they're so anxious to find their voice and be empowered. I look at them, and I'm absolutely optimistic. It's an injection of the human spirit."

Added OC Human Relations' deputy director, Alison Edwards, "Our goal is to raise awareness so that students can start to mobilize, and we want to give them the tools and inspiration that young people can take back to their own communities to share."

She noted that because the county can differ significantly "from one end to the other. This is also an opportunity for students who may not see a lot of diversity in their own campus ... [to] get a broader sense of the world."

Amber Wozniak, 16, of Westminster attended the conference with her friends from the Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) group at Fountain Valley High School. She is active on the Gay Student Alliance board at her school and said she was eager to attend the different workshops and activities and learn more about how to further understand and end prejudice.

Angel Zavala, who lives in Costa Mesa, expressed the inspiration sparked by the event.

"We're building a BRIDGES alumni group to create a close-knit community, make sure those connections aren't lost," said 23-year-old Zavala, who served as a student volunteer at the conference. "It's all about taking a stand and building bridges to connect."

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