Sometimes it's easy to be pessimistic about whether Americans can bridge the misunderstandings and divisions that often erupt on issues involving race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
In our schools, the challenge is reflected in the bullying problem, as children are targeted in many cases because they're seen as different.
Race-related tensions were particularly troubling after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman.
So, the questions arise: Is anyone doing anything to plant seeds for mutual respect and understanding? Is there room for optimism on this score?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. A variety of efforts in the Midlands promote positive relations and fight bullying. We'll highlight one of those efforts — a school-based initiative that just received corporate support from Omaha-based Gordmans Inc.
The program is called No Place for Hate and is carried out nationwide by the Anti-Defamation League. Under the program, schools over the course of the year conduct at least three activities to promote mutual understanding and prevent bullying. Dozens of activities are available, including poster campaigns, essay contests, outside speakers, T-shirt contests, poetry slams and newsletters.
In the Midlands, the program is operated by the ADL's Plains States Region, headquartered in Omaha. The program currently is in place in around 45 schools in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas that have completed the requirements and, at school year's end, earn the title of “No Place for Hate.”
Jessica Gall, ADL's education project director in Omaha, works directly with schools on this initiative. One of the most inspiring projects, she says, has been a workshop that brought together Nebraska and Iowa students from 30 to 35 schools, large and small, urban and rural.
The students hailed from a wide variety of backgrounds, Gall says. Over the course of the event, their discussions helped the teens get a good sense of the variety of students' backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. The result was better understanding and the building of respect.
“That experience goes far in showing students that the stereotypes we have of certain people aren't always accurate,” Gall says, “and we should always challenge ourselves to make sure our decisions aren't based on stereotypes.”
As for the ADL's anti-bullying efforts, Gall says they show that “what really works with students, what really pushes the needle, is focusing on the bystander.” That is, children learn “not just to stand by and watch things happen.”
The aim is to build ways for targeted students to know they are not alone but instead are supported by fellow students and their school.
Jeff Gordman, president and CEO of Gordmans, says his company is partnering with the ADL on this initiative “because its proven bullying prevention programs have helped schools become more inclusive and welcoming to all.” Gordmans' retail stores in 19 states are inviting customers to contribute $1 each or more in support of No Place for Hate.
Gall says that if any Midlands school has an interest in participating, it can email the ADL at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is the ADL Education website.
Alan Potash, regional director for the ADL's Plains States Region, notes that No Place for Hate is part of several ADL efforts promoting the acceptance of diversity, including diversity of opinion.
“One of our goals is being able to have civil discourse in our community,” he says. “We try to help people understand the importance of taking a deep breath” and discussing sometimes divisive issues with a civil, constructive approach.
The right place to begin planting these seeds of hope is with America's young people. All those who are aiding No Place for Hate and similar programs deserve a salute for nurturing a positive future for our nation.