Roles were reversed last week at the University of Vermont as two Essex middle-schoolers took to the front of a large lecture hall, teaching their elders about race and ethnicity.
“Sometimes you’ll go somewhere where there’s a lot of older people and they won’t really pay attention to you,” eighth-grader Bryan House said. “But being there and being a teacher of a bunch of people who are 10 years older than you is pretty cool. They were all paying attention.”
Bryan and classmate Mia Roth are certified peer leaders at Essex Middle School. They are two of 40 students who have trained with Kathy Johnson, an equity trainer and consultant with the Anti-Defamation League’s World of Difference Institute.
Teacher Lindsey Halman said she helped kick-start the program in Essex about five years ago and has seen positive change in school culture since.
Peer leaders take a three-day, 18-credit course with Johnson off-campus, where they learn the definitions of race, ethnicity, bias, discrimination, bullying, harassment and more. Then, they garner how to teach such lessons to their peers.
When someone makes a racist comment, he or she may not know it’s racist, Bryan and Mia explained. The more education they bestow on their classmates, the more aware their peers become, and a less volatile environment ensues, they added.
This means standing up to their peers when they notice bullying or hear a discriminatory comment, Mia said. It’s something she’s had to do a few times, she said.
“How can I help mediate the situation?” the pair said they ask themselves.
Living in Essex, both students recognized they live in a widely white community. Still, they said starting the conversation is just as important as it would be in a more diverse population. They both have friends of different races, they said, noting discrimination affects people at all ages.
That’s why they showed their UVM pupils the video, “Being 12.” A montage of 12-year-olds describing their experiences as minorities, the clip portrays how one’s identity affects his or her everyday lives, even at a young age.
With a colloquial proverb, Halman tells her students to get to know each other before making assumptions. The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” applies, she said.
Last week, UVM students faced a similar question. Would they judge these eighth-graders for what they were: young?
But Bryan and Mia said they were treated with respect. The college students listened and asked questions, paying more attention to their perspectives than some of their own classmates do, the middle-schoolers added.
“Having an adult audience who cares about what they have to say and actually took something from it — it’s not tokenism where these cute kids came and shared these things about bullying,” Halman said. “[The undergrads] were moved, and they learned from the kids.”
Associate professor Bernice Garnett of UVM’s college of education and social services agreed. It was the third year Essex leaders taught her class and the fifth-time World of Difference students did so.
“My UVM students were absolutely blown away,” Garnett said, noting the middle-schoolers’ maturity, interaction with the audience, eye contact, confidence and facilitation of questions. Their sophisticated vocabulary and ability to navigate a discussion on race with ease was commendable, she said.
Peer leaders bring youthful knowledge to the forefront, Halman added, noting once people grow older, they may forget the tough developmental years in middle school.
The middle-schoolers live it every day, and their immersion leads to an inspiring message, Garnett said.
“Young people aren’t complicit. They are motivated for change,” she said.
Instances like when Klu Klux Klan posters spread around the UVM campus two years ago show why it’s important to talk about race, Mia explained.
Over the past couple years, racist incidents have permeated the Burlington campus. Swastika drawings, a stolen Black Lives Matter flag and threatening remarks from white students toward minorities are among the allegations.
Because of the current political climate, “there’s just so much more in our face right now, and it’s always been there, but it’s bubbling,” Halman said. “It’s coming to the surface.”
As unrest climbed at UVM, racist language escalated at the middle-school level as well, Halman said. Young people needing to ignite the conversation with adults shows there’s a reason for dialogue in the first place, she added.
Having students explore and confront these issues decreases the opportunity for hate to escalate. Last week, Bryan and Mia taught the Catamounts about the pyramid of hate, which exemplifies how without confrontation, rumors can drive people toward suicide.
While Halman has seen increasingly racist remarks in the past year, she said EMS’ overall culture of acceptance has improved since the peer leadership program began.
“We need to be listening to our students, listening to our youth,” she said. “Because they have a lot to share and a lot to give.”