Spotting potential powder kegs and giving people the tools to diffuse them ahead of time long has been the hallmark of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations – but that work isn’t limited to adults.
That’s why PCHR has continued its partnership with the U.S. Dept. of Justice, the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department in bringing SPIRIT to Philadelphia high schools, helping to bring necessary change by cultivating youth leaders.
SPIRIT – the Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together – initiative is a hallmark program for the community relations end of the Justice Department, led locally by Knight Sor. The initiative convenes students, administrators, teachers and parents for group brainstorming to identify problems, develop solutions and take action to lessen conflicts within their schools.
In May, it was students at Ben Franklin High School that stepped up to the challenge to tackle concerns they face in their hallways daily – with violence and racial intimidation ranking highest among them.
“It’s powerful in the sense that constructive community building takes the effort of knowing what the issues are, and the administration often doesn’t know that,” said Randy Duque, PCHR deputy director in charge of community relations. “Bullying, for instance, tends to occur in vacuum spaces. The problems aren’t necessarily being seen by the adults. The youth see it from a different level. So here, the students get to identify what they see as the issues, as well as serve as the thrust for the possible solutions to the possible.”
Over two days, a cross-section of students – freshmen through juniors, males and females, native –born and international, academic stars and strugglers – split into groups to candidly speak their minds about the state of their school and how it could operate better. They then assembled a list of steps that could get them there.
Many praised their teachers and programs at Franklin, but most fretted about personal safety and a prevailing sense of disconnect among their peers. They shared stories about being randomly assaulted in hallways, thefts and harassment, as well as snubs from kids of different groups. Some indicated that ethnic intimidation is a motivating factor, while others saw it as weaker students being exploited.
The school is 83 percent African American, while Latinos make up 11 percent and Asian students compose 4 percent of the student body, with white students and others making up the rest.
Natosha R. Warner, an FBI community outreach specialist and a 1989 Franklin graduate, said the stories were familiar.
“Some things have not changed at all, just the date,” Warner said. “The students are essentially dealing with many of the same problems we encountered as students. Often we see that we are all dealing with the same issues and that it is often just not taking that next step, to truly communicate our feelings and our needs.”
PCHR has intensified its school outreach efforts after tensions boiled over at South Philadelphia High School in 2009, when Asian immigrants were bullied and beaten by their African-American classmates. The ensuing protests and community dialogues opened a new front in intergroup conflict, for schools and the city.
While SPIRIT is a national initiative, PCHR serves as a lead local organizer for the Justice Department.
“When you get the right kids and the right support from the school, this program can be absolutely fantastic,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “And this not only takes our mission to the ground level, but it also helps to encourage trained, thoughtful young people to take a first cut at real problem solving and conflict resolution, with adult support and guidance. It makes for a richer school experience.”