After a day of discussing race, bigotry and stereotypes with hundreds of Los Angeles middle school students, seventh-grader K.C. Ngoy came to a conclusion: “I’ve teased people who are different before and I’m not going to do that anymore.”
K.C., 13, a seventh-grader at Sutter Middle School in Winnetka, said he learned a lot Monday at the fourth annual University of Judaism’s Prejudice Awareness Summit, in which students discussed the evils of discrimination.
He was one of 240 students from 22 Los Angeles Unified School District middle schools, many from the San Fernando Valley, who participated in the daylong forum.
For much of the day, the students were divided into groups of about 15 to discuss their experiences with and thoughts on prejudice and hate.
“I learned not to stereotype people by their race and not to tease people just ‘cause they’re not like you,” K.C. said.
Karen Aguilar, also a Sutter seventh-grader, said her group tried to find solutions to problems of discrimination.
“We shouldn’t judge people by how they look outside,” said Karen, 12. “We’re all different inside and we can all get along.”
The students also heard an emotional speech by Leon Bass, an African American retired school principal.
Bass told the students about growing up in the South and about his military service during World War II in a segregated Army unit.
“Our country practiced institutionalized racism,” he said. “I was told I was not good enough because of the color of my skin.”
He also told of helping to liberate concentration camps after the Holocaust.
Many students seemed mesmerized, others shook their heads in disbelief at his stories.
Afterward, they reconvened in groups to discuss his talk. Some shared their own experiences with racial discrimination, others had questions about the concentration camps, as if the history of the Holocaust was new to them.
The event, organized by University of Judaism students, also provided training for the adult facilitators that presided over the discussion groups.
“This [forum] really helps kids become more aware of what’s going on,” said Steve Polvy, a teacher at Hale Middle School in Woodland Hills whose students have attended the forum for three years.
“It’s also really wonderful to get these kids together from all over the city. They realize the differences are not all that great.”
Polvy said when his students returned from the summit in Los Angeles, they would form a committee to plan activities to help highlight the various cultures at Hale.
That kind of follow-up is what the summit organizers encourage.
“It’s important to start educating kids about prejudice very early in life because it’s important for them to become well-rounded adults,” said Kira Krupovlyanskaya, a University of Judaism senior and summit organizer.
“A lot of programs target elementary and high school kids, but not middle school kids and this is a very important developmental age.”