Cisco, a twelfth grader in the Bronx, woke to the morning TV news to see his dad being arrested by police in one of New York City’s largest drug dealing raids.
Mary, a Maine tenth grader, faced another day of school carrying in a space very close to her heart the experience of repeated sexual abuse. Why didn’t her mother take her and run?
Different races, different cultures, different places, same story.
This was the beginning, connecting 24 students whose race, ethnicity, and location had separated them, but whose stories and hearts brought them together. They sang, they danced, they laughed and they cried. They ignored the itinerary carefully crafted by the adults in favor of their own interest-driven, fact-finding activities. Who could hail a cab faster, a white kid from Maine or a black kid from the Bronx; who had the best dance moves; who had seen the stars (yes, the ones in the sky!)?
And mostly, they shared their stories with each other and then, boldly and in hopes of changing the world, with their schools, their communities, with strangers, with you.
That is how it began. A phone call from a daughter teaching in the Bronx to a mom teaching in Maine launched the idea to connect diverse groups of learners by first sharing their stories and then their schools, their friends, their families, their homes, their communities, their cultures – weaving together the very fabric of their diverse worlds.
So powerful was this connection, it caused the founders to leave secure public school teaching jobs and create Operation Breaking Stereotypes (OBS), a non-profit committed to facilitating this ongoing quest for knowledge and social justice through short-term exchanges between middle and high school students in Maine and New York City.
Today over 4,500 students have stepped outside their comfort zones and connected to far away worlds, not across oceans, but across the chasms created by race, ethnicity, class and geography. The discoveries have been rich, the connections strong, and the possibilities for a more equitable and just world are extraordinary.
Their voices say it best…
“Yes, we made friends with kids from a different background, another ethnicity, an urban environment, but that’s not what really happened. We all grew. Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Every person affiliated with the trip came out one step higher on the staircase of our overall wellness.”
“I want this exchange program to keep on going until the moment comes that we realize that a couple of young kids have changed the way people talk, act, and think.”
“Living with my partner’s family gave me a chance to see how others live and being around new people gave me a feeling of excitement.”
“I personally have grown because I now don’t judge people when I meet them, but I now get to know them.”
“I’ve learned to accept others for who they are, not what they look like or believe.”
“I thought Maine was going to be drop dead boring and racist, but I was way wrong!”
“I no longer fear the city.”
“I thought the families were going to be quiet and very uptight, but they were very down to earth.”
“The kids from Brooklyn were a lot like the kids from Maine; they didn’t look like gang members.”
“Many people have never been able to see both sides; this program helps to get rid of false opinions and stereotypes.”
“I used to think that parents didn’t care where their children were but my partner showed me different, showing me that all parents are probably alike.”
“If we want people to raise their consciousness beyond the current levels, we need to give them experiences that help them do that. Today’s high school students are in the position to do this.”
“We had led completely different lives up until this point, yet we were so much alike it was scary.”
“I got to see practically the whole world from a really high mountain. That little moment really changed me…I could see the world from a really different angle and got to appreciate it more. It showed me that there still are places in this world that are outside of everything and that are so free, free of vilence, free of trouble, free of harm and of every danger that’s in this world today.”
“The more time you spend with this group or anyone different from you, the more you see past color, background, or anything else. You subconsciously love the people for who they are and embrace the amazing differences.”