Teens Explore Past, ‘Privilege’ And Path To Overcoming Discrimination

By Julia Haskins

On a brisk Saturday morning, the students of Operation Understanding DC (OUDC) crowd a messy hotel conference room, hard at work. Markers and poster board are strewn about, along with junk food to fuel discussions about the intersection of race and religion. Two-dozen teenagers are acting out skits and designing games and posters for their presentations on leaders of the civil rights movement. Several students huddle to practice a rap they’ve written about the Montgomery Improvement Association:

We have a broken system and we’re looking for improvement/
The racists wanna stop us but we keep movin’/
We want our equal rights ‘cause we are all just human/
Up in Alabama in 1955/
They tried to keep us down but we wouldn’t ever hide/
Boycotts, resistance, civil disobedience/
Fighting ideologies of local segregationists

The cramped conference room buzzes with laughter and debate as students put the finishing touches on their projects.

Since 1993, Operation Understanding DC has brought together a group of high school juniors in the Washington, D.C., metro region — half are African-American and half are Jewish — for a year of cross-cultural exploration. The civil rights retreat is one opportunity for students to discover the ways their backgrounds overlap, and how, together, they can overcome discrimination on all fronts.

“I think the black and Jewish experience is the foundation for future growth,” Executive Director Yolanda Savage-Narva says. The theme of black-Jewish resistance is underscored throughout the weekend with activities that highlight the unity of two oppressed peoples during the civil rights movement.

The students learn over the course of the retreat that it was a group of young Jewish and black civil-rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who were murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964. It was the collaboration of black and Jewish leaders that led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Time and time again, the students learn, black and Jewish people have stood together in the face of adversity.

Aside from this retreat, during the spring, the students of “Class 23” take part in a home exchange for Easter and Passover. In a few months, they will embark on a Summer Journey through the Deep South, continuing their education on civil rights from the past to the present.

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Operation Understanding DC brings together black and Jewish high school juniors in the Washington, D.C., metro region for a year of cross-cultural exploration. Photo by Jared Soares.

“We’re two very different cultures, but at the same time, not,” says student Julian Dowell. “As minorities and as oppressed groups, there’s always going to be commonalities between us. So coming to OUDC, I’ve been able to find those and just connect.”

Dowell says it’s the small moments that show students how they are more alike than different. After programs finish for the day, black and Jewish students go back to their hotel rooms, chatting about the everyday experiences that bond them.

“There’s just little things, like when you’re up in your room up at night talking, like, ‘Oh you go through that?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, I go through that.’ Those are the most important moments in my opinion,” Dowell says.

Program Director Ricki Horne understands the power of conversation in shaping personal views. An OUDC alumna, Horne was moved by the discussions her sister, who was the first in her family to participate in the program, would spark at the dinner table. That led Horne to reflect on her own “privilege” and how she unwittingly took part in systemic forms of oppression.

There’s a saying at OUDC that sums up the program experience, according to Horne. “The relational is transformational,” she explains. “Once you’ve built that connection with another human, you can overcome a lot.”

Civil rights-era activist Joan Mulholland brings up issues of power and privilege in a Saturday afternoon presentation, wearing a T-shirt that commemorates the nine black people who were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Readers who don’t know Mulholland by name may have seen an image of her from 1963: a white woman, her face turned away from the camera, sitting in between Anne Moody and Hunter Gray at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. The student activists are covered in food that’s been dumped on them by the surrounding mob.

The students are enthralled by Mulholland’s presentation, and many go up to hug and thank her afterward. One of those students is Sydney Smith, who says she was touched by Mulholland’s courage to resist a racist society, even though the injustices she witnessed had little bearing on her own life.

“So many people feel like, ‘Oh I’m not oppressed, I don’t really have anything to do with this,’ but you do,” Smith says. “And Joan is the perfect example of how someone who’s in a position of power can really make a difference and stand with people who don’t have a voice.”

It’s that attitude that Rhema Jones had in mind when applying for OUDC. “I said it in my interview that I really wanted to be brave. I really wanted to stand up for people who can’t…even when it’s hard,” Jones says. ”By the end of the program, I want to be wiser and able to create change.”  

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Yolanda Savage-Narva is executive director of Operation Understanding DC. Photo by Jared Soares.

To work toward progress, students must confront their own power and privilege, they are taught. An OUDC tradition is the “privilege walk,” an exercise that shows students where they literally stand in terms of their advantages in life. The students form a straight line side by side. Horne calls out a statement, and students take steps forward or backward in response. “I attend a private school” is a step forward. “I have gone to bed hungry because there was no food at home” is a step backward. After about 15 minutes, there is a stark distance between the student who stands at the front and the one who stands at the back.

After the walk, some students are visibly upset. Horne gathers the students in a circle on the floor of the hotel conference room, first to inhale and exhale deeply, shaking off the intensity of the walk. The discussion that follows is occasionally awkward, sometimes heated and peppered with snaps of approval.

Discomfort is part of the OUDC experience, says Ella Buring. And with an embrace of discomfort comes the ability to respect other people’s realities. “Commit to not being comfortable, and you will be exposed to other viewpoints,” Buring says. “That does not mean that everyone’s going to walk out thinking the exact same thing.”

OUDC offers a safe space to engage in heavy discourse “because all of those social barriers sort of disappear here,” she says.

And social barriers do seem to evaporate when the students lead Shabbat and Havdalah services on Friday and Saturday night, respectively, and a sermon followed by upbeat gospel music on Sunday. There’s a lot of hugging, which Buring says is not uncommon within OUDC.

The students cherish these moments, as they rarely come up organically in daily life. Ben Vardi says that while his college-prep school is fairly diverse, most interactions don’t go beyond the surface.

“I think that it’s really important that we do expose more people to more situations, and I think the best way to do that is through education,” he says.

The timing of the civil rights retreat is not lost among the students, some of whom openly express their fears about living in such a volatile political climate. Black and Jewish students alike are no strangers to the intensifying racism and anti-Semitism throughout the country.

It can be challenging to find common ground across cultures, but that is exactly what is needed right now, Dowell says.

“I think right now it’s all about listening,” he says. “Even our community rule is listening to hear and not to respond. And I think that that’s what we don’t necessarily do nowadays. Everyone’s so quick to respond, ’cause everyone’s so opinionated.”

The students of OUDC are certainly opinionated, but they didn’t commit to a year of extracurricular activity to talk over one another. They want to bridge the barriers that continue to divide, one lesson and one conversation at a time.


Julia Haskins is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She is a reporter for The Nation’s Health newspaper at the American Public Health Association and a communications fellow at the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. Her writing has appeared in ReadersDigest.com, People.com, Parents.com, Healthline and more.


kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Jared Soares specializes in documenting underrepresented communities and was named one of 51 Instagram photographers to follow by TIME Magazine. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker and in permanent collections at the Portland Museum of Art and the University of North Carolina.

Originally published in May 2017. Copyright © 500 Pens. 

In The Picture: Holocaust Survivors, Remembrance And The Antidote For Hatred

Photos by Giovana Schluter
Text by Karen Schwartz

The human cruelty of the Holocaust is almost too much to comprehend. Couple that with the now frequent image of swastikas appearing on buildings and playgrounds, the more than 100 bomb threats that were called into Jewish community centers and the vandalism that occurred in Jewish cemeteries this past year, the question emerges: How do survivors bear it? One way is through hatred’s antidote: community.

Selfhelp Community Services, which operates the oldest and largest program serving Holocaust survivors in North America, fosters this fellowship by, among other things, arranging monthly lunches where groups of New York City survivors socialize. The camaraderie was clear at a recent Holocaust Remembrance Day lunch in Brooklyn, which featured a program of readings, conviviality and song.

Later, in a room to the side, attendees posed for portraits by photographer Giovana Schluter and answered the question: “What would you most want people today to know or understand from your experience?”

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“We lived in a little town, and my father was a rabbi. We were eight children. They came and took him, and they cut off his beard. We never saw him again. The next morning they took us to the ghetto, my mother and the eight children. And after four weeks, they took us to the stone factory. Then they had an order, people with a lot of children, they have to go first. They took us to cattle cars — no toilet, no food, nothing. We were traveling for a whole week, and we were going to Auschwitz. And somehow what happened — maybe they didn’t have room in the crematorium — they didn’t have place for this transport and then it went back to Austria. And that was our luck.” —Paula Weiss. Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“I keep repeating this: people should know that hatred and silence led to murder. ‘Never again’ will only be good if there is no silence. We can’t be silent.  Now our loved ones, our millions of loved ones, live only through us, and we must make sure they are never forgotten.” —Sonia Klein. Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“I was in the ghetto in Romania three years. From 1941 in June to the liberation August 23, 1944. I went home, the house was empty. We didn’t have [food] to eat and it was terrible. To survive the war, yes, was hard… but many people forget that after was still very difficult.”   —Adele Schreiber (translated to English).  Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“…But I don’t know how you could make the world to believe. It’s very, very difficult. Because even the people who lived there couldn’t believe you could just take people and throw them in the crematories and gas chambers.” —Iditha Avishai. Photo by Giovana Schluter
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“I want people to realize that we went through a lot in the Holocaust, and it was a lot of hatred.  I wish that there should be peace. People should get along with each other. And for future generations, they should know what happened.” —Ruth Sokol. Photo by Giovana Schluter


Giovana Schluter is a portrait and documentary photographer, based in the South Bronx, in New York City.

Karen Schwartz is a writer and a contributing editor to Marie Claire magazine.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.

Viral Photo Sparks Bond Between Jewish, Muslim Families

Photos by Suzanne Tennant
Text by Mimi Sager Yoskowitz 

“The photo was really beautiful and powerful because there was this amazing parallel between the two families,” said Yael Bendat-Appell.

She was talking about a photograph that depicted her husband, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, and their 9-year-old son along with Fatih Yildirim and his 7-year-old daughter. Both fathers talked while their children were perched atop their shoulders, smiling and holding signs that included, “Hate Has No Home Here.” Meryem, the little girl, wore a scarf; Adin sported a yarmulke.

The photo of the Jewish and Muslim families, taken during a protest of President Trump’s first travel ban inside O’Hare International Airport by Chicago Tribune photographer Nuccio DiNuzzo, went viral. Those parallels Yael discussed sowed the seeds of a friendship between the Bendat-Appells and Yildirims. Since February, they have gathered three times for meals at each other’s homes.

During one of these recent dinners, the children, ranging in ages from 18 months to 15 years old, played together while the adults spoke in the living room, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing easily with one another.  

“We’re people who are busy with families and work and life. [Yet] this is really important to us, and so we’re making it happen,” said Rabbi Bendat-Appell about the families finding time to bond and solidify their friendship. “But it’s not an extraordinary thing. Anybody can do it.”

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The Bendat-Appell family from left: Jordan, Orli, Adin, Yael and Shaiya. The Yildirim family from left center: Amy, Ihsan, Fatih, Meryem, Yasemin and Destiny.
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The fathers were discussing kosher steak houses when a Chicago Tribune photographer snapped a photo of them that went viral this winter. In an effort to expand upon their families’ growing friendship, the Bendat-Appells and Yildirims recently gathered with six other couples from their own communities to begin widening the interfaith circle.
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“Our values as human beings feel very similar, so it’s exciting to share that,” said Yael Bendat-Appell, serving dinner to the children.
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“The kids need to reach out. They need to get outside of [their] bubble,” said Amy Yildirim. “Kids have this purity, they’re not contaminated yet.”
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The kids gelled quickly. “We end up sitting together ourselves, and the kids are off doing their own thing,” said Yael Bendat-Appell.
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Fatih Yildirim said seeing the Bendat-Appells and other non-Muslims at the protest was “touching.” Here he plays with his 22-month-old son Ihsan and 18-month-old Shaiya.
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“I think that God brought us together for a reason. It’s a good match, and it’s going to keep continuing,” Fatih Yildirim said. “This is just the beginning.”


kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Suzanne Tennant is a freelance editorial, commercial and family photographer based in the Chicago area. She was a staff photographer with Sun-Times Media Company from 2006 to 2011. During that  time she won awards in the Illinois Press Photographers Association “Best of Photojournalism.” She has also been a freelance photographer in the Seattle area.

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a Chicago-area freelance writer, mother of four and former CNN producer. Her work has been featured in Chicago’s JUF News and on various sites including “Kveller,” “Brain, Child” and in the Contributor Network of “The Forward.” Her essay about motherhood was featured in the anthology “So Glad They Told Me.” Connect with her at mimisager.com.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.