As Orange County's Ethnic Landscape Continues to Change, the Human Relations Commission Works With Schools, Parents and Youngsters to Stop Racism Before It Starts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A muttered insult in the hallway. New racial graffiti near the lunch court. And after school, at the fast-food place across the street, a stabbing.

Nowhere, it seems, are racial tensions more clearly illustrated--or, through youthful exuberance, more magnified or volatile--than in schools.

Indeed, young people commit much of the hate crime in Orange County. Of 43 white-supremacist assaults in Orange County last year, most involved juveniles. Of the hate crimes and incidents--175 were recorded in the county in 1995--the "overwhelming majority were perpetrated by youths," according to Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

The commission, now beginning its 26th year, has been involved in school-based human relations work since 1988. That year, at El Modena High School in Orange, African American parents complained about white students performing a skit in blackface.

Since then, recognizing the importance of stopping racism before it starts, the commission has expanded its school-based outreach programs and now targets middle school and even elementary school campuses in addition to high schools.

"Orange County is really one of the most diverse areas in the nation," says Kennedy. "We now have a kindergarten-through-12th-grade population that is majority ethnic minority, so essentially there is no majority. Between 50 and 80 languages are represented in each district, even the smallest ones."

The commission's school outreach includes high-profile events such as the twice-yearly Walk in My Shoes symposiums, which involve hundreds of students at daylong workshops off-campus, and support services such as after-school workshops, videos and curriculum-based materials and exercises.

When requested by schools, the commission steps in to help organize meetings over specific racial problems such as name-calling, discrimination and violence. Often, the conflicts come to a head not on campus but at fast-food restaurants nearby.

And there, Kennedy says, "instead of trained professionals, all you have dealing with it are minimum-wage employees."

For the commission's multiethnic, multilingual staff of five, the rewards of their work are intangible yet satisfying.

At the student retreats she leads at high schools, Swinder Cooper hears stories of prejudice that date back years, even back to elementary school. Some of these festering, deep-rooted memories of discrimination and disappointment had never been told even to a counselor before--much less in front of 30 student peers.

At these diversity workshops, part of the commission's School Inter-Ethnic Relations Program, students often leave with newfound empathy for the needs of others, Cooper says.

"One important thing learned by the students is that even though we're all different, we're more similar than different," she says. "We all share the importance of family, we all have different backgrounds--we're all ethnic--we all have strong emotions.

"Then we talk about stereotypes and discrimination. And it's also an exercise in listening skills, because one thing students get caught up in is trying to convince the other person they're right: 'Why don't you see it my way?'

"We sit in a circle and tell our stories, and what comes out of that is an awareness that we've all been discriminated against. And, without me having to tell them, they come to the realization that when we are hurt, we tend to hurt others. And we talk about taking responsibility for that."

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Commission staff member Tina Fernandez is working with Michael Matsuda, a teacher at Orangeview Junior High in Anaheim, on Planet Orangeview, a campus ethnicity workshop scheduled for May 10.

"We want to expose adolescents in a safe, educational environment to the same issues they're exposed to in the hallways," Matsuda says. "Schools need to become places where kids of all ethnicities can express themselves, with skills and vocabulary. Things escalate from words to blows quickly, and conflict resolution provides kids with an alternative."

Matsuda, who teaches crisis management and multiculturalism, sees the need for more multicultural training for teachers as well as students. He recalls an incident working with some white high school students several years ago.

"They could not find a place to express what was happening in their lives, and they wanted to form a white student club. But the principal's response was a blanket no, with no dialogue at all. And this was stifling for these kids; what happened was they went out [beyond campus] and joined some skinheads."

In addition to her work with Orangeview and other schools, Fernandez has organized a parent leadership institute for non-English-speaking parents, with the goal of promoting involvement of immigrants with their children's schools. Her colleague Victoria Luong is working on a K-12 program for the Tustin Unified district.

Staff member Danielle Nava, meanwhile, is organizing a program for a dozen middle schools countywide that will feature workshops, curriculum, parent advisory teams, stage productions, international food fairs and more.

The commission's three-part video series, "Stop in Your Tracks: Alternatives to Violence," includes a curriculum for nine hourlong sessions, says coordinator Eli Reyna.

"One of the most powerful parts of the video is an exercise in death and dying," he says. "Normally, teens have death pretty far from their thinking; they think they're immortal."

In the exercise, psychologist Colleen Masters of Laguna Beach asks the teenagers to list the 10 most important things in their lives. Then they're asked to begin deleting items from the list, beginning with the least important ones, with the realization that what is deleted--people as well as things--is gone forever.

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The commission's ongoing programs, including student workshops such as the annual Freshman Multicultural Field Day at Fullerton's Sunny Hills High, are designed to serve the schools' unique needs, Kennedy says.

"We learned that we can have more dramatic impact on behavior if we work with [school staff] to assess their situation as it changes and develop strategies as those situations change, as opposed to coming in as an outsider . . . and telling them what to do. It's collaborative, versus speech- or presentation-oriented."

Sunny Hills sophomore Ada Chen of Fullerton was a student mediator at this year's Freshman Field Day, which aims to promote understanding and respect among students of different ethnicities.

"We have quite a few ethnicities at our school, and some kids benefited a lot from it," said Chen, 15, who is Chinese American. "They were listening. They weren't sitting there just because they had to; they were taking it in. Overall it has a positive effect. We help them get more open-minded."

Another student mediator, 17-year-old Shilpa Gupta, was frustrated by the language barrier during her workshop.

"The ethnic groups really stick together at my school," says Gupta, of Fullerton, who is of Asian Indian descent. "In my group, the majority was Asian and couldn't speak English well enough to tell their feelings. I had one Indian, three or four whites, one black, and the rest were Korean. A lot were new and didn't know what was going on. The workshop wasn't a failure but didn't help my group as much as the rest."

Carolyn Millikin, assistant principal at Sunny Hills, wants to expand the concept.

"I very much value the work the Human Relations Council does," Millikin says. "Not only did they help us develop a curriculum to go with the Freshman Field Day, but they gave us incredible support. One thing outstanding is they don't say, 'This is the program, here, use it.' They work in cooperation to design something right for your school."

But not all schools are eager for the commission's intervention.

"Some administrators and faculty don't want to deal with [ethnic relations], saying it's not an issue and they just want to teach their [standard] subjects," Kennedy says.

"Sometimes they feel put-upon. A teacher has mastered his subject area and worked at a school for 25 years . . . but sees a breakdown in his effectiveness because of this rapidly changing student population. And they feel threatened by it, saying the kids are too violent, there's too much diversity here and kids don't have common values anymore.

"And sometimes schools have so many activities that they can't figure out how to deal with us--yet another program, yet another committee, yet another intervention."

So sometimes in those schools, the commission tries to work through existing programs. For instance, at Huntington Beach High School, Kennedy says, "we'll work . . . with their Peace Week committee, their International Week committee and their committee dealing with freshman orientation."

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Kennedy, 44, has seen firsthand how Orange County's ethnic landscape has changed. As a child, he lived in an all-white neighborhood in Fullerton. The makeup, in fact, was written into the deeds of the houses, and Kennedy recalls his mother walking door to door petitioning to get the discriminatory clause removed.

He still lives in his boyhood home, having bought it from his parents 20 years ago. But now the neighborhood reflects the ethnic makeup of the county.

Now in his 19th year with the commission, Kennedy has suffered a shrinking budget even as ethnic hostilities have increased. The commission once received $306,000 annually from the county but now operates on a third of that. In response, the nonprofit Human Relations Council was formed, using corporate donations to augment the commission's school programs.

Many schools, especially those in the central county, have already reached the nadir of ethnic hostility and can only improve, Kennedy says.

"But some schools are going to get a lot worse. Every school is going to have a crisis. It's just a question of whether or not you're prepared for it and whether the crisis tears your school apart . . . or you've worked to try to build a structure to hold it together through that."

Says Matsuda at Orangeview: "What the Human Relations Commission does is proactive. They front-load their efforts, whereas society is reactive. As a society, we wait till there's a crime, then put 'em in prison, rather than front-loading."

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