“There is no them, only us.”

LUDLOW, Vt. – Four of Black River’s best and brightest students joined 1,400 others from more than 60 middle and high schools all over New England at the Anti-Defamation League’s 23rd Annual National Youth Congress in Boston on March 30. They were representatives of A World of Difference; a group that inspires high school and middle school students all over the country to inspire their peers to end racial bias, bigotry, and prejudice for people of different cultures, religions, and backgrounds.

Black River facilitators at the Anti-Defmation League’s 23rd Youth Congress in Boston. Photo provided

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded in 1913 and is the leading organization that fights anti-Semitism through programs that counteract hatred and prejudice in children through peer leadership programs. Black River clinician Deborah Harrison says,

  “A World of Difference and the Anti-Defamation League teach the message that we can make a difference, even if it’s just for one person. By teaching young people the power of their words, they are gaining the ability to change their environments, their schools, their families, and their communities.”

The Youth Congress is the ADL’s capstone event, with an annual theme: “There is no them, only us.” This year’s program featured keynote speaker Kahzir Kahn, the Gold Star parent of a Pakistani-born U.S. soldier who was killed in Iran. His wisdom, humility, and tragic story brought tears to the audience. Another speaker, an 18-year-old Haitian student, J.J., lost her best friend and her home during the earthquake in 2010. She came to Miami at age 11 and became the victim of harassment by her peers because of her accent, hair, and dress. Her message was: “Don’t let the identity others give you limit who you are.”

Each team of A World of Difference presenters prepares to facilitate a safe discussion about race and racism with either middle school or high school students and their teachers. The Black River High School team, led by Deborah Harrison and Maryann Gagner, included Olivia Burroughs, Bailey Matteson, Ryleigh Corrigan, and Lukas DeArruda. Their diverse group of more than 50 students was excited to engage in the activities the team had prepared a couple of weeks before, discussing identity, safety, self-empowerment, and making a difference through the inspiration of others. After two hours of activities and discussion, the students and facilitators went to the closing ceremony and remarks, and headed home, full of thoughts and ideas to bring to their own schools and A World of Difference teams.

The entire team of over 20 facilitators at Black River is trained in the fall and presents to middle school and elementary school students. Right now, they’re hosting a student-led forum to open discussion between students and administration, often discussing Act 46 and student environment.

A World of Difference is hoping to send students to the National Youth Congress next year to represent Black River at this experience of a lifetime.

Olivia Burroughs comments on her experience: “I wish I could live in those moments all over again, because it is incredible to be in a room surrounded by people who love what AWOD/ADL stands for. It was amazing to be able to represent my school, but also be a model for the middle schoolers we presented to. It felt so good to lift them up and let them know that they are powerful, and they can change the world too.”

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