Group helps Forest Charter School students in Nevada City talk about race, confront prejudice | TheUnion.com

Group helps Forest Charter School students in Nevada City talk about race, confront prejudice

Emily Lavin
Staff Writer

The 32 high school students at Forest Charter School lined up at one end of the blacktop outside a set of portable classrooms on campus.

"If you were raised in a working class home, walk across," said Jamal Walker. Twenty-seven students walked to the other side of the blacktop and turned to face the rest of the group for a moment before heading back to join them again.

Walker continued with about 20 other directives, asking students to cross the blacktop if they had ever been called fat, had Native American heritage or had ever struggled in school, among others.

"Take a look around, notice who's with you and who's not," Walker would remind the students after every couple of trips across the pavement.

The students were participating in the power shuffle, an exercise designed to demonstrate that everyone falls into different social categories that give them power or take power away.

The power shuffle helps students recognize those divisions, spot commonalities and confront stereotypes, Walker explained later. "None of us asked for membership into those groups, whether we're on the upside of power or the downside," he said. "They're artificial divisions that we need to unlearn."

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The exercise was one of several designed to guide conversations about race, ethnicity, prejudice and conflict resolution among students during two three-hour workshops held Nov. 9 and 16 at Forest Charter.

The workshops were facilitated by Walker, Bill Drake and Cindy SantaCruiz-Reed, who co-founded Creating Communities Beyond Bias, a group dedicated to helping youth develop tools to overcome and unlearn prejudice.

"We're encouraging them to think critically, and for some of these students, they don't get to have that kind of interaction and that kind of teaching on a regular basis, someone actively engaging them and saying, 'We want to hear from you, we want to know what you think about this stuff,'" Walker said.

Creating Communities Beyond Bias formed about four years ago. Drake works in customer service at BriarPatch Co-Op and has a unique perspective on overcoming prejudice after growing up in the segregated South in a family that believed in white supremacy. He eventually rejected those beliefs and has become an activist fighting for equality; he chronicled those efforts in his book "Almost Hereditary: A White Southerner's Journey Out of Racism," which was published in 2014.

In 2011, an article on The Union's opinion page about a racist incident that had occurred in Condon Park struck a chord with Drake. He began talking to Walker, who was then his co-worker at BriarPatch and who is now a cook and baker at Summer Thyme's Bakery & Deli.

"The two of us decided we wanted to create something in our county to try to create more unity and less prejudice," Drake said.

SantaCruiz-Reed joined their efforts in April 2012. Over the past couple of years, the group has given presentations and conducted workshops at several county schools, including Nevada Union High School, Lyman Gilmore Middle School and The Woolman Semester School in Nevada City.

Each member of the group brings a unique perspective and background that they share with the students — Drake, a white man with experience overcoming ingrained racism; Walker, an African-American man with a background in social justice work; and SantaCruiz-Reed, who is part Latina and teaches human development at Sierra College.

And though their workshops are grounded in racial issues, they also address sexism, homophobia, class issues and restorative justice, among other topics.

This is the third year the group has held workshops at Forest Charter, working with 9-12 grade students who are part of the school's Global Studies Academy taught by Jennifer Homan and Josh Miller.

The workshops were a "really good fit" to continue some of the discussions about race relations, social justice and poverty that students have within the school's global studies program, Miller said — discussions that encourage them to think critically and become active citizens in the community.

"All these things are pieces of the bigger world around them," Miller said.

Tanner Day, a sophomore at Forest Charter, called the workshops "eye-opening." He said it was especially inspiring to hear Drake, Walker and SantaCruiz-Reed talk about their personal experiences with racism.

He likened their experiences with prejudice to carrying a heavy backpack on their shoulders, and said it inspired him to think about his own experiences with injustice.

"I don't think I've ever had to hold something like that," Day said. "I've never had to fight for something as much as those guys have."

It can be challenging to have the types of conversations Drake, Walker and SantaCruiz-Reed were facilitating, said junior Ohmala Kotok — but they're important conversations to have.

"The more people are aware (of prejudice), the bigger shift we're going to make in a positive direction," she said.

Senior Georgia Cutters said the workshops helped her realize that everyone has biases.

"We're not bad people for having them, but we need to acknowledge them," she said.

It's that kind of awareness that Creating Communities Beyond Bias hopes their efforts will inspire.

"If it just plants some little seeds and they're more aware, they become more aware of their own prejudices and maybe down the road they look at prejudice around them and in the world, and they find a way to make it a little less," Drake said.

The group plans to continue its work in schools, and are also assembling a summit in the spring that will include representatives from law enforcement, education, religious institutions and other areas of the community to address and reduce prejudice in Nevada County.

It's a conversation that's too important to avoid, Walker said.

"We live in a time where a lot of people are saying, 'Why can't we just be more unified and get along better?'" Walker said. "My response to that is, we can't get along better and be more unified if we don't understand, what are the things that are getting in the way of that happening?'"

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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