NEW YORK — In 1998, the vassar College PEACE chapter brought 180 second- and third-graders together from three very different schools in the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area: a mostly black and Latino school; a predominately white, suburban school; and a private Jewish school.
"The city kids are moving in and ruining the neighborhood," a seven-year-old participant proclaimed, while another said: "I don't want to write to a black penpal." After participating in PEACE's Mentoring Project and meeting several peers and mentors who are black and Latino, one of the two youngsters took me aside and confided that she would no longer say those things.
PEACE (Promoting Equality And Community Everywhere) programs like this one reach thousands of students each year. I created the organization in 1995 - and activities like the mentoring project - based on my conviction that young people can and should play pivotal roles in establishing inclusive, respectful, and responsible multicultural societies. I realized in high school that there are many young people such as myself who want to confront prejudice, discrimination, and hatred, but are excluded from the decisionmaking processes of most established organizations. I also wanted to help demystify "otherness."
During my undergraduate career, I have worked part time to develop and enhance PEACE programs. They are designed to be implemented anywhere, which encourages chapters to address the unique needs of their local communities. Currently there are four PEACE chapters: Vassar in Poughkeepsie, Brown University in Providence, R.I., Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and New Trier High School in suburban Chicago. Chapters are developing in India, Israel, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Canada, and at junior highs, high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the US.
Among PEACE's many activities are those taking place at Vassar, which will be the model for international chapters. Each week, for example, about 45 Vassar students get together to address issues of peaceful coexistence. Students of different backgrounds come together to discuss institutionalized bigotry and inter- and intragroup relations both on and off campus.
In addition, over the last three years, several thousand students have participated in PEACE's Equal Rights Program, which brings university, college, and high school students together with educators and community activists to critically explore human relations. At the Vassar chapter, students organize an annual awareness event that includes faculty- and student-facilitated discussion groups, keynote speakers, movies, workshops, integration of classroom research into activities, and multimedia displays.
And PEACE's Mentoring Project, mentioned before, brings diverse elementary school students together in one-on-one relationships (dubbed "penpals"), which are nurtured by high school and/or college mentors. In forging bonds between the younger kids, the high school and college students promote literacy and critical thinking skills. Last year, PEACE won a literacy award from a reading association for its work in this area.
Transformations like that of the penpal in Poughkeepsie are the reason I founded PEACE, and confirm for me what Gandhi so shrewdly observed, "If we are to teach peace in this world, we shall have to begin with the child."
*David H. Neil is a senior at Vassar College majoring in sociology