Students travel off campus to talk about diversity

Race relations go beyond classroom for UM participants

`Institutional change'

April 01, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

As balmy spring weather teased students out of classrooms and into the sunshine at the University of Maryland, College Park one afternoon this week, eight students piled into their cars and left campus.

They weren't skipping class -- they were enacting a yearlong plan to get people talking and thinking about race relations.

An hour later, they were prompting Prince George's County teen-agers, most African-American, to talk about being harassed by police and stalked by store clerks. They were gently teaching them positive responses to the black vs. Latino violence at their middle schools.

"It was good, they need to talk about this stuff," said Natasha Benton, a communications major who helped lead the discussion at the Metro Teen AIDS Center in Adelphi. "As long as you can get them away from Sega [video games] for a few minutes, that's a good thing."

Said Naeemah Carter, a junior psychology major, "This may not change their lives right now, but in the immediate future, when something [racial] comes up, they'll remember this."

The students and conversation are at the heart of the University of Maryland's work on off-campus race relations.

The university, with more than 20 years of work on diversity issues, is considered a leader in this area. In recent years, it has won national attention from educational organizations and a citation from President Clinton's Initiative on Race.

Last year, the Ford Foundation gave it an $8,000 grant that sparked a class that led to Tuesday's discussion at Metro. In November, the foundation published a narrative of the university's work called "Diversity Blueprint" as a guidebook for other campuses.

"I think the University of Maryland is unique. It is one of many unsung institutional heroes in what I consider an American heroic effort to turn its diversity into a working asset for the nation," said Edgar F. Beckham of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and formerly of the Ford Foundation's Campus Diversity Initiative.

"That they are going off campus with this is a very unusual thing," he said, referring to the course called "Racial Dialogue and Action Project: Equipping Future Leaders with Skills for Success."

"It's taking what colleges and universities have learned and bringing it to the community."

Gladys Brown, the university's director of human relations, agreed. A self-described 1960s radical -- "You can keep an Afro and wear a daishiki for only so long," she joked -- she channeled her passion for activism into work on race and religion, class, gender and sexual orientation.

"This is about institutional change," she said.

"With all this talk about Generation X apathy, I've been extremely impressed with our students," she added. "I think it's a national trend. Students are more activist in nature, more confrontational. There is more of a sense of the political context in which they live."

The eight students who trained all year to lead diversity discussions embody such themes. Though all are women -- two men withdrew last semester -- they are a mix of black and white and reflect a range of interests, styles and academic goals.

Stephanie Kaye, a graduating senior from Pikesville, is an accounting major who plans to work at Arthur Andersen accounting firm this summer. But she wishes she had focused more on social issues during school.

"I've always been really interested in talking about issues of race and gender," she said while driving to the Metro center. "The problem is, up until now, all my friends have been upper-middle-class and Jewish. This class has been a great opportunity to be in a small class environment and interact with people of other races and get to some hard-core issues."

At Metro, a health-oriented community center for young people, Kaye helped lead a group of restless, inquisitive teen-agers in a discussion called "The Endangered Black Male."

The younger students, mostly boys, were alternately engaged and shy, slouching on lounge chairs and sofas. One native Spanish speaker struggled with English. Another insisted the talk was boring -- then repeatedly shared his thoughts on black teen life.

Each one contributed at least a few words as the University of Maryland students guided the conversation.

One 17-year-old named Augustine said store clerks often suspect him of stealing. "I was out the other day, and she kept showing up, `Are you ready to pay yet?' every five minutes. She was probably scared of me. Age has a lot to do with it, plus I'm black."

Ricardo, 14, said police frequently stop and question him. "If I was white, he'd probably be like, `How you doing? Is it safe around here?' "

He tried to get another, more reticent teen to talk about a recent bad experience with police. "What about what happened to you Friday?" he said. "If you were white, that wouldn't have happened, but you had some skin color."

After they wrapped up, most headed to play video games, and the college students reflected, their work done until a community discussion in Washington next week.

"I don't know how much change we affected," Kaye said, sighing.

Said Bridget Turner, their teacher and a doctoral candidate in education, "Well, there's only so much you can do in an hour."

She added, "Think of it like football. You can throw the best pass, but unless they're ready to receive the pass it won't get there. When they're ready, these kids will get it, they'll turn around and catch the ball."

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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