DOWNTOWN : First Impressions Often Wrong Ones

The exercise seemed simple enough: The eight members of the group were asked to respond, on unsigned cards, to the questions, "What do you do?" and "What would you like to do?"

Group facilitator Arlene Andrews collected the cards, redistributed them to group members and directed them to determine whose card they received by the statements written.

But all the group members--participants in a human relations training course--had met just moments before the exercise. So they were forced to rely on first impressions and such imprecise hints as handwriting style, which proved six out of eight times to be wrong.

One woman trying to guess who wrote "dog groomer, student, aspiring actor" said her first instinct was to look at clothing styles. "I thought 'dog groomer--overalls,' " she said as she incorrectly chose a woman dressed in denim clothing.

Using games mixed with frank, personal and often emotional discussion, the course offered by the National Conference of Christians and Jews attempts to teach community members to reduce prejudice and stereotyping.

The specific goal of the five-week program is to teach people in management, guidance or leadership positions--teachers, social and youth workers, administrators, college dorm monitors--when and how to intervene when racial or ethnic tensions arise in the workplace or other group settings.

Participants meet one evening a week for four weeks at the National Conference's offices at 1055 Wilshire Blvd., and spend one weekend in a retreat at a Glendale camp facility. The program is offered every six months and costs $125, with financial aid available.

Participants meet in ethnically divided discussion groups as well as with the entire class. Facilitators use the "racially separate" groups to encourage open discussion and confronting of stereotypes within ethnic groups as well as stereotypes of other groups.

"We talk about internal images within our own communities . . . and how it makes you feel about who you are," said Daniel Loera, program coordinator.

During a recent retreat, members of a Latino discussion group expressed anger at stereotypes applied to them during the guessing game played earlier in mixed discussion groups. "Somebody attached me to a gang because of my style of dress and because I was very 'Mexican-looking,' " said one woman who added, "I got this comment from another person of Mexican ancestry."

Members of a white discussion group, many of whom were Jewish, struggled with facilitator Rachel Levin's question, "What do you think 'being white' is?"

"You can be white and you can be gay," said one man. Others said they felt uncomfortable being labeled "white," with one woman saying, "No one can just be 'white.' "

The program helped Ruben Duenas, 24, who works for a nonprofit agency in Pico-Union, realize the more subtle forms of stereotyping and their damaging effects: "I don't find myself generalizing on the larger-scale things, like race, but during that (guessing) exercise, I found myself classifying people based on writing, which is stereotyping by gender."

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