At Claremont High School, there is a boy named Matthew Shepard -- the same name as the Wyoming college student killed seven years ago in a brutal anti-gay hate crime. Senior Adam Primack often saw his schoolmate get teased, and he also witnessed students chant homophobic slurs during games against their rival school -- an all-boys campus.
Rather than watch silently, however, Primack turned to the skills and insights he's gained as part of DREAM Dialogue, a multiethnic group of teenagers brought together by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to learn to appreciate and respect people's differences and to take action to promote tolerance.
DREAM is an acronym for Developing diverse, Respectful relationships, Empathy and Action with Meaning through dialogue. The program is a youth leadership project of the ADL's World of Difference Institute, run by the ADL's West Coast office.
About 40 teens take part in quarterly meetings, travel to leadership training retreats and design and execute social action projects to promote tolerance. Students have created a mural; a photo exhibition called, "Faces of L.A.," and a book to facilitate discussion among elementary school children about bullying called, "What Would You Do?"
When Primack saw the homophobia in his own school, he knew what to do. He got permission from school administrators to show an interactive movie to Shepard's class called "Hate Comes Home," produced by ADL. The CD-ROM features a dramatization of events leading up to an anti-gay murder at a high school homecoming dance and asks students to go back and make different choices for the characters to try to prevent what happened.
Primack said the whole classroom became involved in the story, asking questions and making choices that determined whether the student would live or be killed. After that day, the teacher who had not taken steps to stop the students from teasing Claremont High's Matthew Shepard wrote a letter of apology for being a bystander.
Participants say DREAM Dialogue gives them the strength to break through the isolation they feel in a culture where prejudice often goes unquestioned.
"There are so few people who have these ideas, so to meet them is amazing," said Shirley Eshaghian, who took part in DREAM Dialogue from 2001 to 2005 and is now a UCLA freshman.
Aside from the local meetings, some students also travel to Washington, D.C., joining up with young people from other ADL chapters, visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and meeting with civil rights activists.
"It's great to be with kids who are like you, who want to make a difference but wonder how one person can make a difference," said Talia Savren, who went to the nation's capital as a DREAM Dialogue member in 2000 and now helps facilitate younger students' meetings. "There are a lot of young minds open to making the world a better place."
On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, a group of about 30 participants gathered at the ADL's local headquarters on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. During an ice-breaker exercise, students were asked to cluster by race and then by ethnicity. One young woman, a multiracial blend of African American, British and Filipino, called out, "Human race." All the others joined her.
Jenny Betz, the ADL staffer running the meeting, appeared a little bit exasperated -- after all, the exercise was designed to explore self-conceptions about difference -- but she was also a little proud.
Betz led a discussion exploring both the useful aspects of categorizing people by race and ethnicity -- a way to define identity, heritage and historical connection -- and the pitfalls, such as a way to unfairly exercise privilege.
Later in the afternoon, the students and some of their parents watched a one-man, nine-character play that traced the efforts of a Salvadoran American teenager to get a driver's license. The actor donned different props to depict different characters, including a Polish-accented Statue of Liberty working as a DMV clerk -- each conveying their views of immigrants and immigration.
Both before and after the play, a facilitator probed the students' attitudes toward race and immigration, drawing out family histories of leaving the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Mexico and Iran for the United States. Throughout the day, the students expressed their views forthrightly, uninhibited about stating views that might be unpopular and open to others' opinions.
The self-knowledge is a crucial pre-requisite to doing the work of spreading tolerance, program alumni say.
"We teach ourselves, then we teach others," said Neda Farzan, an 18-year-old USC freshman. She was a DREAM Dialogue member four years ago and took part in the "Faces of L.A." photo project. The images include tattooed white hipsters with guitars, visitors to Olvera Street, merchants in Little Ethiopia, homeless men in Venice and Orthodox children wearing kippot and tzitzit.
Farzan, whose family fled Iran, said DREAM Dialogue has helped her "value our diverse and free society, where people are encouraged to be individuals and cultural identities are preserved."
"I grew up in Beverly Hills, which is such a bubble," she said. "If you drive 10 minutes in any direction, you're in a different world."