High schoolers seek to bridge divides
Should any person who offers even minor criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement be considered racist? On a continuum of opinion ranging from strong agreement to strong disagreement, would you stand at one or the other extreme, or some place in between?
This is the type of thorny issue a group of high school students in Groton, Ledyard and New London regularly ponder and debate as part of a group called “More Than Words.” Through civil dialogue and respectful conversations, the group comprising some 40 students of a wide variety of ethnic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds, along with different sexual orientations, learn both how to respectfully listen to a continuum of opinions on a variety of controversial topics, as well as how to respond to hateful incidents. Most important, they also discover how to prevent such incidents from occurring.
“It’s such a delight to see high school students being the credible voice for respect and diversity,” Groton Superintendent of Schools Michael H. Graner said. He helped develop the group when he led the Ledyard schools.
We wholeheartedly agree with Graner’s sentiment. The three school districts deserve a healthy heaping of praise for continuing this important program over the past decade. It will, no doubt, play an important role moving forward at a time when an increasing number of hateful comments and actions are being reported — some directed at various minorities and others at supporters of the president-elect — including incidents right here in southeastern Connecticut.
More Than Words was developed during a time of tension between white and Native American students at Ledyard High School. New London school officials told Graner at the time that racial tensions also simmered in the Whaling City and the two school districts joined forces with Mashantucket Pequot tribal leaders to form a group in which the students would become the agents for change. When Graner later moved to the Groton schools, that district became part of the program.
Besides bringing students of diverse backgrounds together to hash out controversial topics, the students both participate in and lead workshops aimed at greater understanding of and better appreciation for our diverse backgrounds. High schoolers also present workshops for elementary and middle school students, helping the younger children develop skills needed to curb bullying and empathize with victims of hateful speech and actions.
There is no doubt the student group has impact. After a respectful conversation in which students told a school resource officer they often felt stereotyped and disrespected by the officer, for example, the tone of interactions changed. High school students take seriously that they are credible role models for teaching younger students respect and empathy for victims of hate speech and bullying. Last year, half of the local students who won sizable Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships were members of the More Than Words group.
In September, some of the More Than Words students spent several days aboard the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry, learning teamwork, leadership and seamanship. They returned with this year’s theme for the More Than Words program: Ship first. Crew second. Yourself last.
With that in mind, the students are dedicated to helping heal the divisiveness that became so apparent both pre- and post-Election Day. They are committed both to promoting people’s differences and celebrating their commonalities. That is a vital and worthy mission, especially now.