WASHINGTON (May. 9)
When the Anti-Defamation League brought more than 100 high school students from around the country last week to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and engage in discussions about countering bigotry and intolerance, the timing was fortuitous.
With last month’s killings of 12 high school students and a teacher in Littleton, Colo., fresh in their minds, the teen-agers absorbed the lessons of the Holocaust and reflected on the racial divisions, hatred and cruelty they said is all too prevalent in their schools.
“There’s always a group of people that will gang up on another group because they’re different, because they don’t like them. It’s just like the Holocaust,” said 15-year-old Andrew Henderson of Chicago, who, like his peers, was selected to participate in the ADL program because he had demonstrated leadership and a commitment to improving intergroup understanding.
“It doesn’t start with a whole group of people hating another group of people,” he added. “It starts with one person hating another person. If we can stop it at our young adult years as teen-agers, we can grow up and take this message with us.”
The National Youth Leadership Mission was developed by the ADL’s Chicago office in 1996 and has expanded in recent years to include a racially and ethnically diverse mix of students from 10 cities.
“Many of these kids return with a voice of authority, with a certain activist and organizational impulse to bring other students of diverse backgrounds together in their own schools, to bridge divides that may exist between cliques and groups within their schools” and to “deal with issues of diversity in an honest and straightforward way,” said Richard Hirschhaut, director of the ADL’s Chicago office and coordinator of the program.
While the Holocaust museum is the centerpiece of the trip, understanding modern bigotry remains one of the program’s overriding goals.
By engaging in discussions with members of Congress and national leaders, Hirschhaut said the students learn how government and community leaders can address contemporary forms of intolerance — and hopefully draw a bit of inspiration in the process.
“You have an obligation, a mission and a mandate to do what you can to remove the remaining scars of racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism, and when you see it, speak up and speak out,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) told the students, recounting his struggle in the civil rights movement.
The message appeared to resonate with 17-year-old Fidencio Guzman of Jasper, Texas.
Guzman, whose hometown became the center of national attention after a black man was dragged to his death last summer in a racially motivated incident, said he was anxious to go home and “try to put these lessons I learned from here in action” by telling people about his experience and the lessons of the Holocaust.
Latoya Jacobs, 15, who lives in Aurora, Colo., a suburb of Denver, also said she planned to share what she learned about the Holocaust and the dangers of intolerance with her peers.
“This can happen,” she said. “If we keep it up, this can happen anywhere, like it happened in Littleton.”
“We’re not going to ever forget this,” she added. “This is something that we do not want to be part of our future.”