Teens turn words into action at Martin Luther King service event

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Great Neck teens lined up to assemble packages for low-income families on Monday, as part of a day of service on Martin Luther King day. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
Great Neck teens lined up to assemble packages for low-income families on Monday, as part of a day of service on Martin Luther King day. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

Dozens of students from around Great Neck united to help their community on Martin Luther King Day, turning lessons on bias and caring for others into action.

Several teens spoke up during the event, offering their views and engaging with others. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
Several teens spoke up during the event, offering their views and engaging with others. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

Middle and high schoolers sat together on Monday, engaging in activities offering lessons about racism, implicit bias and kindness led by Yehudah Webster, a community organizer with Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.

They then assembled bags of goods for families with the Manhasset-Great Neck EOC’s Head Start Program, which provides early childhood education services to low-income children and their families.

“The one thing that I hope they take away is an understanding that their actions and behaviors matter in this century-long effort to bend the arc towards justice,” Webster said in an interview after the event,  “and that they can do the work of racial justice through the work of caring for others and service.”

Yehudah Webster, a community activist and anti-bias trainer, leads participants through a series of lessons. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

The event, co-hosted by Temple Israel, Temple Beth-El, Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc., and the First Baptist Church, built on last year’s day of service, where teens learned about identity, tolerance and packed lunches for the Interfaith Nutrition Network. Members of Beth Hadassah synagogue also attended both events.

Among the core group of organizers were Rebecca Sassouni of Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc., Veronica Lurvey of Temple Israel, Jordana Levine of Temple Beth-El, and Tiffanie Gentles and Adrienne Vaultz of the First Baptist Church.

It was supported by a grant from UJA Federation of New York.

Gentles, a member of Great Neck’s First Baptist Church and co-adviser of its children’s ministry, said the day was about many different groups of people discussing proactiveness, tolerance and “how to move forward as a people together.”

“It’s the same kind of journey Martin Luther King said he had and it takes all of us now to do something a little different,” Gentles said. “Instead of just listening to the speech and saying ‘wow, that’s great,’ it’s time for us to put his dream into action and that was what today was about.”

Webster, a community organizer and anti-racism and anti-bias trainer, began the event by leading dozens of teens through exercises to help them understand racism, implicit biases and a different model for caring about others.

A group of girls work through the "universe of obligation" exercise. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
A group of girls work through the “universe of obligation” exercise. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

In one such exercise, students worked on creating a “universe of obligation,” where they wrote down individuals they cared for in parts of a circle. He then offered a quote: “I love my daughters more than my nieces, my nieces more than my cousins, my cousins more than my neighbors. But that doesn’t mean we detest our neighbors.”

That quote, it turned out, was from Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far right group National Front in France, whom Webster described as a “known xenophobe,” “anti-Semite” and “hateful person” who also ascribed to this belief.

“It’s this hierarchy of care that’s actually helping to perpetuate the bias that reinforces anti-Semitism and racism,” Webster said. He then noted that many people would not even be on this “universe of obligation,” meaning neighbors could be hurting neighbors.

Webster said that to “achieve racial justice” and “actually dismantle anti-Semitism,” people must consider the family of family as their family, expanding their circle of obligation to include everyone, while practicing accountability and vulnerability.

Adrienne Vaultz of First Baptist Church and Rabbi Tara Feldman of Temple Beth-El embrace after an exercise where people partnered up, held eye contact, and recited affirmations in their head about the other person. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

“I’ve come to realize, if we could extend care to fam of fam, then we could come to consider everyone in this world as family,” Webster said.

The best way to reach that point, he said, is to erode internalized biases through action.

“We need a dramatic paradigm shift in our approach to care,” Webster said. “And if we’re going to be really successful in our racial justice efforts, we need to pair that paradigm shift with concrete behavior.”

A student places a bottle inside a bag to be filled with toiletries and food to help families in need. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
A student places a bottle inside a bag to be filled with toiletries and food to help families in need. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

The children soon lined up to put together various foods into 45 bags to help the families, with items including toiletries, bread, beans, rice, cereal, fruits and pasta. Children in the program, with ages ranging from 2 1/2  to 5, will get gifts of play dough, crayons and a workbook.

Teachers also had a “wish list” provided for, organizers said, like glue sticks and paper for the classroom, a Lego table and a CD player.

Veronica Lurvey of Temple Israel stacks up boxes assembled by students for the Head Start students. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

Desiree Woodson, the chairman of the board of directors of the Great Neck-Manhasset EOC, said it was wonderful to see so many students come together for a cause “with all that we have going on in the world.”

“Something like this is very good for the youth, just to see that you don’t have to adapt to all the madness that’s going on,” Woodson said.

Sassouni, the president of SHAI, said her organization was “delighted” to work with other groups on the event and see so many students learn from Webster and team up.

(Photo by Janelle Clausen)
(Photo by Janelle Clausen)

“Watching the students interact in breakout sessions, as well as work together to pack food, toiletries and arts and crafts materials for the children and families of the EOC Head Start program, gave me enormous hope for the future of our community,” Sassouni said. “As Mr. Webster taught them, we can only dismantle systemic bias when we take time to engage with the other, and to allow others into our sphere of care.”

Levine, representing Temple Beth-El among the coordinators, said she believed the event underscored “the importance of not giving up.”  While society as a whole still has “a lot of work left to do,” she said, the students offer an example of hope.

“I think today demonstrates that our future is willing to step up, recognize the work that needs to get done, and are putting themselves up there and taking a stance,” Levine said.

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