Some 30 delegates to the Democratic National Convention took time out from politicking to participate in a hands-on workshop in democracy and diversity, initiated by a Jewish institution. The workshop was based on the youTHink program, in which public school students use the arts to grapple with social issues and then act out their new awareness to initiate projects that will further responsibility and tolerance in their schools and communities.
Progenitors of youTHink are the Zimmer Discovery Children's Museum of the Jewish Community Centers and the Center for American Studies and Culture, an educational think tank. During a two-hour session, the delegates of diverse ethnic, social and geographical backgrounds were first shown a photo blowup of the Statue of Liberty and then one of five people climbing a "career ladder," with a middle-aged white male on top.
What meanings do the pictures convey to you, asked Esther Netter, the children's museum's executive director and workshop leader with Bernie Massey, president of the American studies center. The question raised deeply felt passions about gender and race discrimination, the struggles of immigrants, the meaning of American freedom, and the pros and cons of genetic engineering.
After an hour of free-wheeling discussion, the "class" was assigned its own art project, starting with a small white box, scissors, paste, crayons and popular magazines with lots of illustrations to cut out.
One New Hampshire delegate created a white picket fence home on the outside, while on the inside sat a little black child adopted by the family and facing its own struggles in a lily-white New Hampshire town. A Tennessee lawyer dedicated her box to domestic violence, showing abused adults on the outside who produced abused children on the inside.
Other creations showed the box in the shape of a pistol to condemn gun violence, while another doubled as Pandora's box, with troubles ready to fly out.
Delegate Linda Garush of Manchester, N.H., interrupted her project to comment that "any vehicle that helps us to understand each other, how we all fit together, is important."
Garush said she would try to get her church to adopt a similar youTHink program.
Annette Shapiro, who as chair of the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles had been involved in launching the project, said she appreciated getting delegates' viewpoints from states across the country. The youTHink program began almost three years ago and has received a $1 million grant from the State of California Arts Council. Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation has just announced a $100,000 grant for a youTHink teacher training program.
So far, some 30,000 students in second to 12th grades have participated in the program. Netter hopes to double that number next year.