By Amy Wenk
In 1945, Dr. Leon Bass got the “shock of my life” when he went to a concentration camp in Buchenwald, Germany as a young soldier in World War II.
“I was totally unprepared for that kind of experience,” Bass told 260 middle-school students Nov. 6 at the Georgia Tech student center. “I knew on this day I had seen the face of evil.”
The students attended as part of the three-day Power Over Prejudice (POP) Summit held Nov. 4-6. For more than a decade, Bass has been the featured speaker, sharing the racial discrimination he felt as a black soldier, the injustice he witnessed in Nazi Germany and the hope he saw during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Go back with the energy and courage to stand up” against discrimination, Bass said to students at the close of his sensational speech.
The POP Summit is an annual program of the Anti-Prejudice Consortium, a Buckhead-based nonprofit that works to fight prejudice and increase tolerance.
“We need to respect other people’s differences,” said Bonnie Capsuto, executive director for the Anti-Prejudice Consortium. “Our mission is to be a resource to the middle school community in the battle over prejudice, hate and discrimination. [Middle-schoolers] are just now forming their own opinions. It’s a good age to give them this knowledge.”
This year, the 14th annual summit brought together students and counselors from 67 Atlanta area middle schools, including several from Buckhead, Sandy Springs and Brookhaven like Holy Spirit Preparatory School, Sutton Middle School and Marist School.
“What I enjoyed the most about the POP Summit is that the students come from many different parts of the city and from public and private schools,” said Keisha Noel, director of community relations and multiculturalism at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Brookhaven. “The summit itself is a lesson in diversity.”
Each school is permitted to invite up to 10 students to the summit.
“The idea is the students will be able to use what they learn and share it with the rest of the school,” said Adriane Eastman, middle school counselor at The Lovett School in Buckhead.
Participants are split up into small groups where they discuss diversity issues and complete activities that promote understanding. Students are taught the harms of bullying and are encouraged to take action when they see it.
“The activities were amazing,” said 14-year-old participant William Boor, an eighth-grader at St. Martin’s Episcopal School. “I just hope I can help apply it with my friends. Then with a chain of effect, they’ll ripple it down all the way to the first-graders.
“It just seems wrong that people are discriminated against, and I am trying to help.”
The POP Summit is modeled after a program started in Houston, Texas in 1991. It was brought to Atlanta in 1997 by Kathy Klatt of The Junior League of Atlanta and Louise Freedman of the Atlanta Chapter of Jewish Women International.
Georgia is the only state that follows up with schools after the summit. Many schools translate the knowledge and training they receive into projects and clubs.
For example, St. Martin’s will this year host four “Mix it up” lunches where students are asked to sit with someone in a different grade in hopes of building friendships. The school last year received a Certificate of Excellence from the Anti-Prejudice Consortium for the programming they have implemented.
Marist School in Brookhaven was honored this year. Lyndsay Murphy, the school’s middle school counselor, said Marist has integrated diversity into its curriculum and has a club called Mosaic.
“It is just a topic that everybody needs to know about,” Murphy said. “There are so many factors that go into diversity and it’s not all about race. It’s disabilities. It’s sexual orientation and living in different parts of the country. There are a lot of ways prejudice can build. Showing the kids that you have got to look beyond the surface to find out who somebody really is, is a great idea for middle school kids.”
Keith White, director of community outreach for Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, said he sees POP as a “catalyst for us to come together for the greater good.” The program teaches kids about “looking beyond themselves and how they can help the community and the world.”