Diffusing discrimination
Local program addresses prejudice at grassroots

SideStory: Community approach to cultural relations: Unity Coalition to host forum

Members of Fort Lewis College’s “Campus of Difference” program, from left, student Heather Ellis, Coordinator of El Centro de Muchos Colores Shirena Trujillo Long, Assistant V.P. of Student Affairs Sandy Smith and student Sal Plascencia work on a peer trianing exercise Tuesday at the college. The goal is to raise awareness of biases that can creep into campus life and lead to discrimination and prejudice./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

It’s been 50 years since the Little Rock Nine crossed the threshold of the all-white Central High School and into American civil rights history. Yet, as racism rears its ugly head in the small town of Jena, La., local students are working to diffuse discrimination at its root level.

Starting next month, Fort Lewis College will begin hosting monthly “dialogues” aimed at helping participants better identify their own biases, which can lead to discrimination and prejudice. The dialogues are part of the Anti-Defamation League’s “Campus of Difference” program, which is part of that larger “World of Difference” campaign, a worldwide effort aimed at educating people on the benefits of diversity as well as the danger of prejudices.

“It’s a way to proactively address issues before they turn into hot-button topics,” said Shirena Trujillo Long, coordinator of FLC’s El Centro de Muchos Colores. “It’s a way of looking at the root of discrimination and not just working to make things better when issues flare up, but to make it better all the time. We want to talk about discrimination so the topic is resolved before it even happens.”

El Centro de Muchos Colores, as well as the college’s Native American Center and its coordinator Yvonne Bilinski, have spear-headed the effort at FLC.

Although the current fervor over the “Jena Six,” a group of black high school students who are on trial for beating a white student in the wake of a what is being called a hate crime, underscores the importance of such an effort, Trujillo Long said the idea actually came about last year.

“It’s really modeled on Durango High School’s Prejudice Elimination Action Team (PEAT),” said Trujillo Long, who attended a peer training seminar sponsored by PEAT and the Anti-Defamation League last February. “I went to the training last year and loved the idea and definitely felt there was a need for such a program at our campus.”

Her hunch proved right, and earlier this month, 19 students, staff members and faculty underwent the ADL anti-bias peer training program. From there, each individual is required to branch out into their own respective organization or group and conduct trainings on their own. “We called ourselves ‘Code Red’ in part to heal and protect campus,” said Trujjilo Long.

A few weeks after the FLC training, Durango High students underwent their training as well, marking the eighth year of the program at the high school. The program was started by the Durango Educational Alliance for Multicultural Achievement, or Del Alma (formerly known as the Durango Latino Coalition) in response to a Civil Rights Commission report that found the school was lacking in racial integration. “It identified the school as being racist,” Leann Vallejos, Del Alma’s executive director, said. “The goal was to create a respectful environment.”

While the peer training deals with racism, Vallejos said it extends to include all the “isms,” such as ageism, sexism and classism as well as religious bigotry and homophobia. “Students learn about all forms of discrimination and the ways hate manifests itself,” said Vallejos. “They then turn the information they have learned into lessons they present to their peers. The goal is to eliminate the stereotypes that lead to hate by teaching respect for humankind.”

Twenty Durango High students underwent the two-day training last week. From there, they meet once a week after school for two hours to discuss and implement ways to educate their peers. In addition, the students conduct trainings at the high school as well as area middle and elementary schools. But perhaps most importantly, they are putting into action what they have learned on a daily basis in the classes, hallways and lunch rooms.

“It’s all based on the ‘pyramid of hate,’” junior PEAT member Hannah Keener said, referencing a flyer from the ADL. “It starts with jokes or rumors but ultimately can escalate to prejudice, hate crimes and even genocide. But if you can cut off the bottom, you can cut off the cycle.”

One way the students are taught to combat biases is to let other students know that their words are offensive to them. “You don’t come out and say ‘You are wrong,’ because that is seen as an attack,” said sophomore Erin Burke. “Instead, you say, ‘I’m offended by what you said.’ That way, you can walk away and just leave them with the thought.”

Keener said most of the time, it boils down to kids stopping and thinking about what their words mean. “I think a lot of times, they just don’t realize that what they are saying is derogatory. It’s hard to stop it, but little by little, you can chip away at it.”

Maria Gonzales, a DHS teacher who oversees the PEAT group, said slowly the concept is catching on. “It really is coming along, we’re getting more and more known. We have a really dedicated core group of kids; we’re like a growing tree, branching out to other areas.”

Keener, who has been a PEAT member since her freshman year, agrees. “Now I don’t have to explain what it is to kids anymore,” she said. “When I say ‘PEAT,’ they say, ‘Oh yeah.’”

Trujillo Long envisions a similar transformation taking place on a collegiate level. “This year, it’s a pilot program, but if it goes well, as we anticipate it will, we may look into expanding it,” she said. The ADL offers a license of its World of Difference program, whereby an institution may purchase all the materials necessary to conduct its own community anti-bias trainings. The only other school in Colorado that does so is CU Boulder. “It’s really exciting to see something formally organizing on campus for issues that have been so important, not only in my three years working here but since I was a student here 12 years ago,” she said.

Already, with only one meeting of the group, she said it has proved a valuable learning experience. “People were really sharing things,” she said. “You see these people every day, and you think you know them, and you walk out that door, learning something new.”

As far as long-term benefits, Trujillo Long said the program could be helpful in addressing another, related problem that plagues FLC: student retention. “Our ultimate goal is to increase recruitment and retainment of Native American and minority students here,” she said. “Everyone needs to feel welcome, and I think this will help.”