BOSTON – The ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel was packed with high-energy teens on their feet, chanting and clapping to the rhythmic beats of drumming group Grooversity’s multicultural music, for the opening of “Leaders in Action,” the New England Anti-Defamation League’s 25th annual Youth Congress.
More than 1,400 middle and high school students and teachers from over 80 schools across New England attended a gathering of ADL peer leaders, who are on the front lines of preventing and confronting bigotry and prejudice in their schools.
Schools from 17 communities north of Boston, including Swampscott, Marblehead, Lynn, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Beverly, Malden and Arlington sent representatives.
Among the Swampscott High School students were seniors Harry Katz, Olivia Reiser, Marley Schmidt, and Tania Shadari, ADL-trained peer leaders who facilitated one of the two-hour workshops at the conference.
The group was first introduced to the program when they were in middle school, when peer leaders from the high school spoke to their classes about hate symbols, anti-Semitism and hurtful slurs. It left a big impression on Schmidt, who decided then she wanted to become a peer leader when she got to high school.
“Being a leader means learning from the past. It means you stand up for others,” Robert Trestan, the New England ADL’s regional director, told the crowd. He encouraged them to change the world by working together.
Hate incidents continue to rise in schools in alarming numbers, according to Phil Fogelman, director of the New England ADL’s A World of Difference Institute. According to an ADL report, anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts schools rose 86 percent from 2016 to 2017. The New England ADL is backing state legislation, which is currently co-sponsored by 94 legislators, that would require genocide education for all Massachusetts students.
“The goal is for every student to learn what happens when genocide goes unchecked,” said Trestan.
Robert Rudolph, a New England ADL board member who grew up in Swampscott and was a high school peer leader in 2003, is inspired by the students at the youth congress who are facilitating conversations about “how diversity can bring us together,” as he wrote in an email.
Students listened intently to the stirring personal stories of Birukti Tsige, a student leader at Malden High School, and George Elbaum, a Holocaust survivor and author of “Neither Yesterdays or Tomorrows: Vignettes of a Holocaust Childhood.”
Tsige, who arrived in the U.S. with her family from Ethiopia when she was eight, was motivated to become a student activist to challenge the kind of prejudice her family faced.
“I work to make this world more accepting,” she began.
At Malden High School, which hosts students from 94 different countries, Tsige organized a campaign to change a rule against wearing head-scarves. Tsige also launched the Malden Youth Civic Association, which runs voter registration drives and organizes events to host local elected officials.
“Even if you don’t go into politics in the future, we all still have a civic duty to better our community and our schools,” she said.
Tsige’s talk was inspiring for Harry Katz, a peer trainer from Swampscott High School. “She didn’t wait,” he said. She started to show up at civic meetings and talking to teachers and city councilors,” he said.
Elbaum, who was born in 1938 in Warsaw, said he survived the Holocaust through the clandestine efforts of his mother, who escaped with him from the Warsaw Ghetto. She arranged for him to be cared for by a series of different Polish Catholic families.
Malden High School student Asmaa Asousy felt that hearing Elbaum’s first-hand account was a more powerful and effective way to learn about the Holocaust than through a textbook. “It’s not so much a story as it is someone’s story now. You actually see that someone survived that. That had an impact,” said Asousy.
Laila Belkessa, a Malden High School peer leader, believes that the peer leader program has given her the tools to speak out against the bigotry that can come up in everyday life. “It helps students become part of the solution, and not part of the problem,” she said.
Olivia Reiser of Swampscott says the ADL training has been a strong influence in her life. “I definitely see myself participating in college in something that is similar,” she said.
Tania Shadari of Swampscott, who is African-American, witnessed offensive behavior from her white peers, who dropped offensive slurs and mockingly acted out African-American stereotypes. “It hurts your feelings as a black person that they stereotype you to that point where it’s offensive,” said Shadari.
Shadari feels that she and her fellow peer leaders have been able to combat this behavior through their work with ADL.
“The class of 2019 is a good representation of how a school should be in terms of the changes we make and how we look at ourselves,” she said. “It’s been a positive experience.”