Fighting prejudice, one student at a time

I believe my fellow pages and I exhibited something that was absent in the House of Representatives this past summer: communication and respect.

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By Elijah Jatovsky

I served as a Congressional page for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last summer, and witnessed the highly partisan and deadlocked environment that plagued the House of Representatives during the debt-ceiling fiasco.

Among the biggest challenges I faced during my two months as a page was being in an openly homophobic environment. One page laughed at the thought of having a gay president, saying if one were ever elected he would be the first in line with a shotgun.

As the son of gay parents, I was deeply hurt. For the first few weeks, whenever I heard a homophobic remark, I would stomp out, grumbling to myself about how backward these pages were.

Then it dawned on me that these homophobic pages had probably never knowingly met a gay person or someone related to one. I concluded that if I wanted to change their opinions about gay people I would have to appeal to their emotional side through personalization.

One night in a conversation with two of my homophobic page friends, I posed the question, "Should gay people be denied the right to marry?" They responded yes because gay people have the "choice" of being gay. I then asked, "If being gay was a choice, what are the children of gay people like?" They responded that the children probably led similarly immoral lifestyles, and that they were probably gay too. Then I posed my final question, "What if I told you I had gay parents?"

Despite my liberal worldview, these pages had come to perceive me as approachable and respectable. So when I came out as the son of gay parents, it challenged their preconceived notions. On the last day of the program, the pages wrote notes to one another to remember our experiences. One of them wrote in my book, "You changed my views of San Francisco... It's full of liberals, but they're OK peeps."

I believe my fellow pages and I exhibited something that was absent in the House of Representatives this past summer: communication and respect. We were able to put our vast differences aside, and truly listen to one another. We held conversations that were not marred by fiery rhetoric, but rather educated one another about our core beliefs and why we held those opinions.

This type of dialogue is what a society needs to function — and that's why I started a program called National Connect.

NatCon provides high school students the opportunity to communicate with people who have different upbringings and values. Scools provide background information ranging from student body size to religious affiliation through the NatCon website, and NatCon pairs very different schools. For example, the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco is paired with Beulah High School in the rural town of Valley, Alabama.

Students are assigned individual "buddies" from their paired school. They begin online correspondences answering different prompts. The prompts are given in stages, initially asking students to describe their lives in general.

After a connection is established, NatCon provides another set of prompts, more personal and potentially controversial, such as asking students to discuss stereotypes they hold. Finally, participants are asked to discuss their core beliefs about provocative issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the environment. Students are asked to state their position, and explain the values that inform their beliefs. The purpose is to educate and inform each other, not to convince anyone of a particular point of view.

In the first month since NatCon's launch, there are more than 50 high school students participating from nine schools and six states. Maybe there's hope.