PITTSFORD — They came from different schools, different backgrounds and different upbringings.
But to show the area students that they also had common ground, Gaynelle Wethers, director of multicultural affairs at Nazareth College and a parishioner of Rochester’s Immaculate Conception Church, asked them to raise their hands to show whether they were an oldest, youngest, middle or only child.
She then pointed out the characteristics that often are held in common among people of the same birth order. Oldest children, for example, may learn leadership, as they take responsibility for younger siblings at an early age, she said.
The exercise was part of a two-day program called “Building Bridges of Harmony,” which is designed to teach sixth- through ninth-grade students at area public and private schools how to move beyond racism and stereotypes. The program is a partnership of the Martin Luther King Jr. Greater Rochester Commission and the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Nazareth.
The conference drew more than 70 students to Nazareth College Dec. 11 and more than 80 students on Dec. 12, Wethers said. After the conference, students were encouraged to work with fellow students of different religious or ethnic backgrounds on a project tackling such topics as racism. In February, the students will have the chance to submit their projects and accompanying essays in a contest run by the college.
Past projects have included students meeting with Rochester City Council members to offer them ideas on building understanding and reducing racism, said Betty Marian Anderson, past commissioner of the King Commission and a former Building Bridges chairwoman who continues to volunteer with the program.
During the program, Wethers said she tries to capture students’ attention by using popular films to illustrate points. Scenes from “Braveheart,” for example, teach about freedom and how one reacts when someone harms a loved one, she said. Lessons focus on identifying and responding to racism and discrimination, she said.
“How do we get socially active? What is our social conscience?” Wethers asked. “We did talk about racism, sexism and individuals with physical disabilities, and sexual orientation.”
Anderson said the commission is grateful to Wethers and Nazareth College for its efforts to make the two-day event possible, including feeding the students and providing event staffing. She noted junior-high-aged students were selected to attend the event from the student bodies of each participating school, which this year included Rochester’s St. Monica School.
“If you want to build a better greater Rochester community, this is where you start,” Anderson said.
Several students said the program changed their perspectives. Kamillah Ramos, an eighth-grader at Brighton High School, said she learned about different religions, different ethnicities and racism.
“Some people might think it (racism) has stopped, but it’s still there,” Kamillah said.
Nadine Flores, Ceara Sahm, Amber Jackson and Shuntiayana Sims, all sixth-graders at the Rochester’s Flower City School No. 54, spent the last few minutes of the program dividing up work on their project, which they said would include poems in addition to an essay.
When asked what they thought of the program, the girls quickly responded with such adjectives as “nice” and “wonderful.”
“I thought it was going to be different, though,” Ceara said. “I thought we were going to learn about the college and see college students, but we learned about Martin Luther King Jr.”
Tom Cole, a sixth-grade teacher at Flower City School No. 54, said the program also gave the students a chance to meet their peers at other schools.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for them to be able to get to work with other students from other districts,” he said.