WESTON, MASS. — AS part of a program to prevent the spread of intolerance and prejudice among young people, abolitionist Sojourner Truth stands in a high school gymnasium, telling students what it was like to be a woman from the 1800s refusing to be the slave others wanted her to be.
Portrayed by an actress known as Anike, this extraordinary black woman was a fiercely independent fighter on behalf of many causes in a hostile time. She is a valuable role model for young people, according to the staff of the Northeast Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). The organization sponsors Anike's show at dozens of schools in Massachusetts to encourage students to question racism.
``I try to get across to young audiences through Sojourner,'' Anike says, ``that ultimately they are responsible for their own education and creating their own identity. Sojourner was illiterate, but she was very eloquent.''
NCCJ is one of a number of nonprofit organizations in the United States offering educational programs to combat intolerance and prejudice. NCCJ workshops and summer sessions are aimed at children and teens, the ages when lifetime attitudes are often formed.
Fifteen-year-old Janel Forde, who attends the private Winsor School in Boston, became a member of the NCCJ Youth Council after attending a weekend workshop last September. She was trained to be a facilitator, to go into elementary schools and help children understand that differences in people are to be encouraged, not criticized.
``It was a weekend for exploring our attitudes with lots of role playing,'' she says. ``I think everybody has some prejudices. But in my school if somebody questions blacks, it's more out of ignorance than racism. To me, a racist is someone who chooses to think one race is better than another.''
The weekend hinges on the concept of an individual's ``green circle,'' creating a circle of one's own in which many friendships can grow. The circle can expand infinitely. ``You can determine who you will let into your circle,'' Janel says, ``but you can't exclude people just because they are different.''
Janel and her partner recently visited with second and third graders at an elementary school for one day a week for three weeks. They introduced children to the idea of ``inclusion'' using the green circle as a world of ``caring and sharing.'' Their message was reinforced by the messengers: teens in an elementary classroom, sharing and interacting, and children responding.``In the curriculum, we emphasize that no two people are alike,'' she says, ``and if their best friend is different from them, then you can like all kinds of people.''
The children list their differences. ``They love it,'' Janel says, ``height, weight, gender, skin tone, and who plays soccer and who doesn't. They like knowing they have the responsibility to create their circle and let all kinds of different people in.''
In the class was a girl with dyslexia. ``She had never told anyone,'' Janel says, ``and after she told everyone, one of her friends in the class said, `But I still like you.' And everybody gave her a hug.''