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In this divisive political moment, we learn the most by coming together.
Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns of “the danger of a single story” in her TED talk of the same name. If we are exposed to only one perspective, it’s all too easy to propagate harmful and reductive stereotypes. In today’s society of “echo chambers,” we suffer when we miss the chance to learn from those that are different from us.
In 2011, I was a newly-minted Bezos Scholar and senior at Columbus Alternative High School (CAHS) who wanted to use the power of discourse to combat the single story. Though CAHS was diverse, I couldn’t help but feel we weren’t acknowledging nor exploring that diversity to its fullest potential. With a passion for intersectional feminism and social justice, my Educator, Davan Dodrill, and I set about organizing Teens for Tolerance.
The local ideas festival we developed was a 3-day exploration of feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and cultural diversity featuring over 50 speakers and performers. Through Teens for Tolerance, we hoped to raise awareness of community diversity and lingering social inequalities, then provide education to counter discrimination. Session topics included trans rights, the experience of ESL students, racism, reproductive rights, surrogacy, human trafficking, and more. By giving a voice to underrepresented groups, we hoped to start discussions and open minds.
This discussion-based approach was a hit with our school community! Attendees expressed they appreciated the chance to see previously undiscussed issues spotlighted, gained more understanding of their peers, and were glad to learn about new cultures and the importance of diversity.
The festival’s sessions were a chance to forge new connections, foster empathy, and start critical conversations. As one of my fellow students explained, “As a Muslim, I liked seeing my non-Muslim peers learn about Islam. I feel as if we became connected and our already-diverse school community learned about our cultures and the serious problem of Islamophobia may be less in our school.”
In coming together, we found room for increased respect and understanding going forward.
After I graduated, Teens for Tolerance continued for two years at CAHS. The festival presented an ever-more-inclusive survey of social justice and activism. It broadened to include animal rights and protection of the environment in addition to its three core tracks. Meanwhile, student activism and partnership with groups represented at the festival flourished throughout the district.
Now, on this International Day for Tolerance, more than five years after the start of our festival, the message of multiple stories is more powerful than ever. In today’s tumultuous political climate, it is easy to stick with the familiar—but infinitely more rewarding to learn from the unfamiliar. Hope lies in our sharing of experiences and understanding of differences. Ultimately, it is a diversity of dialogue that allows us to learn and grow as a community.