Students are agents for change in reducing intergroup conflicts and promoting intergroup harmony.
The Commission was especially moved and inspired by the young people who spoke at our hearings. We heard from students from many different groups, from schools across the City, who are involved with a variety of issues and activities.
All the students who stood up to speak were brave in confronting and dealing with incidents of conflict and bias in their schools. Many also took risks by organizing campaigns to address school conflicts that adults in their schools had previously tried to ignore. In some cases, they were able to make their voices heard despite having little experience in organizing.
One of the leaders of the South Philadelphia High School boycott gave his own account of what happened: "I was from Vietnam, and I've been in the United States for about two years... And throughout those two years I experienced a lot of violence, especially racial discrimination. In 2008, in October, there was a big fight against the Asian students. At first, we didn't know anything about organizing, so we just stayed home for one day after the fighting. And then everything was forgotten. Last year, 2009, in December, the same thing happened again. This time, it was even bigger. And this time, thanks to the support of the community people, we organized a boycott."
Several witnesses who are now college students spoke of how their experiences with homophobia in high schools elsewhere prepared them for their role as advisors to LGBTQ students in Philadelphia schools. Others shared stories of how they were able to impact intergroup conflicts because of their roles as peer mediators, students who work directly with other students to resolve difficulties.
A former high school football lineman, who now plays for an NCAA Division I university, told us about how he helped another student at his school: "[A] couple of days ago [a peer mediation school staff member said] 'I need you to follow this little girl. She's going to lunch but she's being picked on by boys that are bigger than her... When she came in the hallway I actually scared her a little bit, so I had to back up and just tell her 'I'm here, I'm helping you. I want to get to the bottom of what's been going on every day.' So...[I] followed her to lunch. I stayed a couple steps behind and told her to pay me no mind. And actually, one of the boys that was picking on her came to talk to her and he was saying sorry because he...already was peer mediated before that by two other peer mediators, and they had already talked to him. So he went to her alone the next day and said sorry...and that it won't happen again. So, ever since then, she hasn't really been picked on... And we told her,...'We don't want you to come to school and feel as though you have to hide or walk a certain way because you don't want to walk into somebody.' So we just try to make it a safe environment for everyone."
A member of a Youth United for Change chapter in Philadelphia told us about working with other students and adults to change the District's zero-tolerance policy. She said, "We have begun collecting surveys. We are going to schools all over the city to talk to students and simply ask them their personal thoughts of how they are being treated and whether they need to talk with someone after being suspended at school... [A]ll ages are affected by zero tolerance and it's not fair. It is up to us to end the act of mistreating students."
Members of the Philadelphia Student Union described their new "Campaign for Nonviolent Schools" and told us about a student-led training for security guards at a troubled high school. As one shared with us, "I was a part of the training, and I believe the school security got where we was coming from, and we saw how they had it rough as well. From then on, everything went a little more smoothly, and they talked to students in a more respectful way. It helped and it opened up lots of communication."
These hearings showed us that young people have a clear understanding of the systemic problem of intergroup conflicts in Philadelphia as well as the ability to develop creative solutions, and are committed to working closely with adults to make their vision of peace in every school into a reality.