Teaching Tolerance to Teens

How often do you hear the N-word, the B-word, anti-Semitic remarks or rants against homosexuality?

How often do you stereotype or make generalizations based on someone’s race, gender, religion or sexual orientation?

Unfortunately, answering “every day” to at least part of either question is probably the norm. With that reality in mind, Tolerance and Diversity became the perfect theme for the Juvenile Accountability Court’s most recent community service learning cycle. Click here to Read More.

In the midst of brainstorming ideas for our third cycle of community service learning, Chief Bronx Family Court Judge, Clark V. Richardson suggested the theme of Tolerance and Diversity after presiding over a case that involved a hate crime. In addition to the stories heard about Chinese food delivery men who are robbed en route, it is not uncommon to discover racial epithets or intolerance as the motivation for teenagers assaulting one another. As young people begin to define themselves and group accordingly, conflict with others can become a way to demonstrate their allegiance. Travel the Bronx and one will be hard pressed to find a teenager who does not know about the so-called Dominican-Puerto Rican rivalry. The concern within the court system is when this intolerance turns violent. Working with Judge Richardson’s suggestion, the goal of our theme was to take a birds-eye view of this type of intolerance and address related issues. What is the role of a Hispanic woman? Is bi-sexuality a choice? Is there anything wrong with questioning the existence of God?

Questions such as these would generate discussion and expose the diversity of beliefs existing just within the group itself, teaching everyone to be more understanding and tolerant of each other and by extension of greater society. The more we explored the theme, the more we recognized how extensive it was. To simplify things, we decided to divide it into four separate categories: race/ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

After spending the first two sessions providing the group with general information on all four topics, we divided them into groups of four and assigned each group one of the topics to specialize in. We reviewed key concepts such as genocide, homophobia and racism. We studied events like the Holocaust, the tragedy of Matthew Shepard and the Civil Rights movement. Also, for the first time, we included current events related to our topic. Diversity in the 2008 presidential campaign, the Jena Six controversy, and the incident surrounding Senator Larry Craig of Idaho all made for a lively discussion. With each meeting, they gravitated toward their distinct topics, asking more and more questions, often times competing with each other on who was smarter.

In addition to the workshops, we also made sure to include our core community service projects. In early October, we spent an entire day painting over graffiti at the Andrew Freedman Home, located at 167th street and the Grand Concourse. Originally designed as a home for the elderly, it now also houses organizations like the Head Start and Family Preservation programs. The following week, the Juvenile Accountability Court probationers spent the day packaging supplies at the World Vision warehouse, a community based resource center located in the South Bronx.

For the first time we also took the group on a field trip during the week. After school one day, the probationers gathered at Bronx Family Court where we escorted them in the Bronx Community Solutions community service van to the New York City Tolerance Center, located in midtown Manhattan. The group took a tour of their state-of-the-art facility, learned about intolerance in the media and had an opportunity to ask tough questions and test what they had learned in our workshops. The experience was rewarding for everyone and we are ambitious to include a trip to the Tolerance Center in every cycle of community service learning henceforth.

Keeping with tradition, the cycle finished with a graduation ceremony held this past Wednesday night. In attendance were Judges Clark Richardson, Monica Drinane and Sidney Gribetz. There were also several probation officers, a team from the corporation counsel, staff from Full Circle Health and Bronx Community Solutions, and a representative from the New York City Tolerance Center. As the audience circulated the fair-like presentations, the group explained topic-related literature on their tables and answered challenging questions from the event's guests. To highlight their topic, the group assigned to “gender” played one of R-Kelly’s hit songs “Feelin’ on your Booty.” The song wasn’t playing for entertainment, but rather as an example of misogynistic lyrics. At the “race and ethnicity” table, scenes from the film American History X played in the background to underscore the group’s message about racism and white-supremacy. After about twenty minutes, the guests returned to their seats for a brief Q & A session and the presentation of certificates.

Thinking back on our first three cycles, this was the best one yet. Aside from this being our largest group to graduate, and for the first time the presence of so many judges and family court personnel at the graduation, the young people in this cycle were really able to grasp the theme and many of its concepts. Probationers with the Juvenile Accountability Court come in all shapes and sizes. The level of maturity and intelligence varies greatly and it’s important that we take this into account with the ideas we present and the activities we engage in. Tolerance and Diversity worked because of both its breadth and simplicity and we will be sure to consider such characteristics in every theme we choose hereafter.