To combat the rise of hate crimes on Long Island, the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center is offering Adolescent Advocates: Making Change Happen, a student and adult mentor training program. HMTC officials said, they hope to bring different age groups together to address the issue.
“The idea of the program is that while we love seeing students in the building, we only get to have one day with them,” said Helen Turner, the program’s manager. “We wanted to extend that experience to something much more lasting, and something where the students can be in constant communication with different adults and members of the Holocaust center when situations occur.”
HMTC applied for a grant from Open Society Foundations, an international organization that financially supports civil society groups, last year. Along with help from the activist group Communities Against Hate, the center launched the program in March. Through it, Turner explained, students learn to make their voices heard.
“When children see something in their communities, when they see things on a national or worldwide level, they want to do something about it,” Turner said. “But I think we’ve all had that experience that as teenagers, not everyone wants to listen to our voice. We wanted the adult mentor to buy into the program to facilitate the students raising their voice.”
On Aug. 17 — just days after the protest marches in Charlottesville, Va. — HMTC held its first training session for adults featuring local teachers and parents.
“I think [Charlottesville] was on a lot of people’s minds that day,” Turner said. “Learning how to respond to words and acts of hate — that’s what the program is designed to tackle.”
The biggest challenge, she said, is figuring out how to translate the group’s ideas in action. “Things happen and we want to do something, but oftentimes we don’t know what to do, especially knowing what’s the right thing to do,” she said. “This is an important issue that you need to tackle with two hands. We need to bring everybody together.”
Turner added that HMTC wants to streamline interaction between the center and children so that when there is an incident of intolerance or hate at their school or within their community, they know to whom they can turn.
“They can immediately contact their adult mentor, who would then contact the center, and then we can communicate with the student to make sure that they feel supported and heard,” Turner said.
With hate crimes and speech on the rise, she said, the program is essential to the community. “What’s specifically troubling to me, and I think other people in the Holocaust center community, was the use of Nazi symbolism in modern day neo-Nazism,” Turner said. “Now is the time to disassemble those symbols and get to the root of what they mean and what they represent from a historical context and in its modern-day usage.”
HMTC is now preparing packets for each student, which will provide information as well as a task for teenagers: They must create an action plan to effect positive changes in their own communities.
“While we want to teach students about hate crimes and hate symbols,” Turner said, “it has to be about empowering them and showing them what they can do.”
Guest speakers at future training sessions will include Consolee Nishimwe, a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, along with Nassau and Suffolk county police officers. HMTC officials said they hope local activists will get involved as well.
“I’m also hoping that we could take this on the road and package this into shorter sessions for teachers and students,” Turner said. “My dream for the program is to give it legs and for it to have a life of its own, creating positive change on Long Island and beyond.”
Training sessions for young people in grades seven to 11 will take place at:
The Bellport Boys & Girls Club, 471 Atlantic Ave., Bellport, on Oct. 14.
HMTC, 100 Crescent Beach Road, Glen Cove, on Oct. 22.
Additionally, the second training session for adult mentors will be held at HMTC on Oct. 5, from 4 to 7 p.m. For more information, call (516) 741-8040 or visit www.hmtcli.org/advocates.