Empowering Local Students to be Agents of Change

With the new school year underway, we want to update on the impact the Federation-supported A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE anti-bias peer training program is having on students in Berkshire County public schools. 

This program, created by the Anti-Defamation League, launched in seven schools in 2018 and has already trained more than 200 students. This past spring, those peer leaders began leading activities and discussions with hundreds of their peers. 

This fall, the program will be expanding to ten more middle and high schools in Berkshire County, and we are pleased to share that the Berkshire United Way will be joining the Federation as a major funding partner in sustaining and expanding this program for the future. In addition, four high schools in Pittsfield, Great Barrington, and Dalton will be taking part in a study by Boston University to measure the attitudinal and behavioral changes in the student population as a direct result of this program.

Dr. Jason McCandless, superintendent of the Pittsfield Public Schools and president of the Berkshire County Superintendents’ Roundtable shared a special thank you to Federation supporters at our recent Major Donors celebration and with attendees of our recent Nefesh Mountain Concert (the proceeds of which went to support this program). We are including it here to share his thanks with all Federation donors whose support makes this program possible.  

By Dr. Jason McCandless

Elie Wiesel, in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, said: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

It’s this notion of interference I want to consider.

Even as I enter my fifteenth year as a superintendent, I occasionally find myself very confounded and awkward in conversations. While I consider myself a professional communicator, when my beliefs and assumptions about how our world should work are challenged, I can get tongue-tied and flustered.

I was raised in a religious home where the most basic tenet was the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself. There are two real keys to understanding this notion: one, we should love ourselves because we were created to be worthy of love, and worthy of respect, and two, every other human being on this earth is a neighbor – not just those who look and live and we do.

Despite nearly 50 years of learning and living these notions, I still at times find myself speechless – without words, without ideas, and ultimately without the courage to speak up for what I know is true and what I know is right. I have been well-trained at home and in school. I have three degrees – all of which focused much attention on justice, peace, and the duty of educators to deliver these precious commodities to their students and those they serve.

But still, I can get knocked back into silence by some who expresses a lack of tolerance, a lack of understanding, a lack of realizing their privilege, a lack of seeing their own biases, and a lack of love for their neighbors.

I am very grateful to the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires for bringing the ADL’S A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE program to Berkshire County, to each of our individual schools, and to our individual students.

I thank all involved for helping our students find and refine their voices as people of power, who do not need to wait until they are 20 or 30 to make a difference. Thank you for supporting our children to learn the skills and attitudes that allow them to be agents of change and make a difference in their community right now.

 With your support, students are gaining the skills and confidence needed to promote fairness and dignity for every single student in our schools and in our community. This tool kit – designed to help students stand up for themselves and to stand up for others – is a toolkit they can use for good now, and also when they are partners, parents, employees, employers, and leaders. It will serve them well, everywhere they go, for the rest of their lives.

The power of one voice to speak out against bias, to speak out against hate, to speak out against making one human being feel less than another has great power indeed. Many voices together, working in concert, can counter misunderstanding and ignorance. Many voices together can overcome the hate, the blindness, and the violence.

But it all starts with the courage and the tools to interfere.

Our students are growing up in an amazing age. Most of them carry more computing power in their pockets than NASA possessed to get humans to the moon. Cars are on the verge of driving themselves. We live in an age where it easier than it has ever been in the history of humankind to be connected to people in our own home and across the planet.

And while we live in an age with an unparalleled ability in communications, increasingly we struggle to actually communicate. We live in an age when the very tools that can serve to unite us and deliver understanding are often used to hurt, to shame, to divide, and to spread hate.  Intolerance and ignorance can now travel at the speed of light, unrestricted by geography, borders, or distance.

But understanding can travel unrestricted, as well. So can peace, and the message of love and respect, understanding and togetherness. Our young people have the power to leverage this power for good. They have the power and the opportunity to do better and to be better than those who have traveled the Earth before them.

On behalf of the Berkshire County Superintendents’ Roundtable and public schools throughout the county, I thank these students for stepping up to the challenge of creating a better Berkshires for everyone. I am grateful to their families, their teachers, and their schools for recognizing this need and for being partners in the work. I am grateful to Phil Fogleman and his expert team from the Boston Anti-Defamation League for their leadership, guidance, and dedication. Finally, I thank Dara Kaufman, the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, and each of you for your generous and vital support.

You are making our community and our world a better place. You are teaching all of us to love ourselves and to love our neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” Thank you for being believers in and workers for peace, and thank you for helping create a generation of interferers for the good of humankind. Thank you for helping make a world of difference.

For more on A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE in our community, see One Story