AS a workshop on racism ends, leader Peri Smilow has the group of about 20 teenagers come together in a circle and join hands with her. Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian move closer together.
``This is work that all the people that came before us have not been able to solve,'' Ms. Smilow says, ``but if we can do anything to help increase understanding among people, then we have done what we could.''
The ``work'' is to take aim at prejudice, sexism, racism, violence, religious intolerance, and all the stereotypes that limit understanding. For one day recently, the National Conference for Christians and Jews (NCCJ) did this by bringing together 200 urban and suburban teenagers from the Boston area.
The third annual conference, titled ``Actions Speak Louder: Building Unity Through Diversity'' and designed by teenagers, comes at a time when urban violence and racism among teens is on the increase in inner cities.
``We are educating people about respect and celebrating diversity,'' said Susan Musinsky, director of the Northeastern region of NCCJ.
``The conference plants seeds. You are less likely to throw a stone at somebody you've had a good conversation with.'' The purpose of the conference was to send teenagers back to their schools with skills to combat racism and intolerance. The gathering was an outgrowth of teacher requests and previous suburban conferences held by NCCJ.
Just before the program began, Jeremiah Shepherd, a student at Boston Latin Academy, said, ``Teenagers have a lot of stereotypes of each other, just like adults have of us. I'm here to learn, and to be myself, too, because being black is only part of what I am.'' Identifying attitudes
The day began with a series of fast-paced workshops that engaged students in exploring prejudices and stereotypes. In the morning sessions, specially trained teenage leaders worked with groups to identify feelings and attitudes.
Demetra Stavrianidis, a multicultural adviser at Hyde Park High school said, ``What this conference does is get kids out of their closed communities to deal with prejudice and discrimination. All the kids that came last year from my school are into peer leadership now. They've put together ethnic celebration days at school, and held conflict-resolution workshops.''
In one of the conference workshops, teen leader Kaitlin McGaw of Belmont High School in Massachusetts put small, printed labels on the kids' foreheads. The labels read: ``liar,'' ``fat,'' ``my Dad served in Desert Storm,'' ``AIDS,'' ``lives in the bad part of town,'' ``cheerleader,'' ``doesn't speak English.''
Not knowing what label they wore, students talked with each other in terms of the labels they saw on others.
The point: to feel the confusion of being stereotyped. ``I was treated really bad,'' said a student with a ``fat'' label. ``People started laughing at me,'' said another with a ``cheerleader'' label.
In another group, students were asked to describe their schools with one word. ``Sports,'' said one. ``Boring,'' said another. ``Cliche,'' and ``individual'' were others.
Group leader David Bacani had his group identify stereotypes like nerds, preppies, cheerleaders, minorities, and examine the characteristics attributed to them. ``Prejudice is generalizing about someone based on limited knowledge,'' he said. Learning how to cooperate
Students joined hands randomly in a jumble. Then, through cooperation and lots of climbing over arms and legs, and without unclasping hands, the group unraveled to form a circle. ``I really got aggravated that we couldn't do it,'' said Kanessa Burns, a student at Hyde Park High School, ``but it taught us cooperation.''
At lunch, Jeremiah Shepherd noted the lack of inner-city students here.
``These suburban kids are arguing about something like wearing hoods to school,'' he said, ``and kids in the inner cities are dealing with metal detectors, guns, and violence.''
Brian London, vice president of the student body at The Pingree School, and an organizer, said, ``We invited 300 schools from all over Boston to attend. And these are the schools that wanted to come.''
In the afternoon sessions, professional facilitators conducted workshops in AIDS, hate crimes, the Holocaust, sexism, racism, and more. Peri Smilow, in her workshop on racism, emphasized empowering students with choices about racism.
``You can choose what to do,'' she said, ``and step back a little and realize you can do something that helps you and the other person.''
In the final session students from each school grouped together to devise an ``action plan'' for their schools.
Shepherd said that at his school racism is hidden. ``For instance, our school lunchroom is still segregated,'' he said. ``The Asian kids sit together, the black kids sit together, and the white kids all sit together.''
The four students from Boston Latin decided to hold a multi-ethnic conference when they returned. ``We've got to bring things out in the open,'' said one, ``and mix with each other so that everybody is together.''