Cultural Leadership challenges activists


After more than three weeks on the road, the 28 black and Jewish high school students of this year’s Cultural Leadership class stood in a line at the front of Temple Emanuel. Each prepared to recite a speech about a highlight of their trip across the South and East Coast, in which they met with individuals and organizations that hold some significance to black or Jewish culture. Though they joked and waved to their families in the audience, their nerves showed plainly on their faces: after all, this was their first chance to prove themselves as agents of social change.

Since Karen Kalish founded Cultural Leadership in St. Louis, she has set high standards and even higher expectations for participants. After six months of meetings and retreats, the group embarks on the trip, which the program organizes to refine their understanding and knowledge of social justice. Through the lens of the historic relationship between Jews and blacks, students learn the basics of public speaking, fundraising, mediation, and cooperation, which Kalish truly believes they will use to change the world.


“[Cultural Leadership] has evolved not only from St. Louis, but from everywhere, and our much bigger goals now are to continue learning about each other, to learn about anti-Semitism and white privilege and power. The much bigger goals have been to give them the tools to bring about change now themselves. We have lots of problems in this country, and we want to give the young people the skills to be the future leaders,” Kalish said.

Though the core mission has remained the same, as Cultural Leadership produces new classes of alumni, its most direct legacy appears to lie in the personal choices of its graduates. Some, such as alum Clarissa Polk, a graduate of John Burroughs and a rising junior at Colgate University, continue to immerse themselves in other cultures.

“I’m a member of the Colgate Jewish Union. I’m not Jewish. I’m also member of the Hindu Student Association. I’ve always been fascinated by details and people, and Cultural Leadership was an opportunity that made those details of the past palpable. So I’m in those things just to learn, and I’m sure I would not have joined without Cultural Leadership,” Polk said.

On the first day of the program, Kalish hands out a timeline of events in which blacks and Jews fought together for Civil Rights. Students learn to place themselves within a broader history, extending from a Jewish-led abolitionist movement in 1838 to black support for Israel on Capital Hill. Though many students enter the program with little knowledge of this relationship, most come to see it as a crucial support system between two similar cultures.

“I hope that we can strengthen it again. I know we’ve kind of gotten away from it, but I hope we don’t lose it. I know it’s easier for Jews to assimilate into American society because anti-Semitism has diminished, but we have such shared histories I think its’ important not to lose it,” MICDS junior Porch é Poole said.

Cultural Leadership uses the group dynamic to enhance the trip. Leaders recognize the inevitability of conflict in a group of teenagers, together without a break for 24 days. They learn tension-relieving activities to smooth intra-group tensions, but also as practice in what Kalish sees as vital leadership skills.

“We’re a lot closer now. We’ve seen a lot of different sides of each other. We were together for 24 days. We’re better leaders now, better listeners. We’re more patient and we work together better,” John Burroughs junior Meredith Stoner said.

Many of these relationships also outlast alumni’s transition into college. However, according to Kalish and her former students, Cultural Leadership’s lessons on how to build relationships from scratch are the most valuable to former participants.

“We are closer than ever, probably closer than we were then. Most of us didn’t know each other before junior year, but Cultural Leadership was a growing-up experience. Everyone has taken so much from Cultural Leadership. Rachel Winston — she went down to protest for the Jena 6. I know Blake Harris has formed the first multi-cultural frat at Mizzou. Scott Freidman, at Washington University, is in the Latin American Student Association,” Polk said.

One of the most difficult moments on this year’s trip came in Jena, La. Students first met with Bryant Purvis, a black student accused of battery and conspiracy in the controversial Jena 6 trials. They were told of a highly-segregated Jena, and students agreed the town needed to heal. Therefore, when they met with the reverend of a large white congregation in town, his refusal to acknowledge a problem struck Cardinal Ritter junior Jillian Lynum as unfortunate.

“He also has two children who attend the Jena High School where all of this has happened. And he said his children haven’t had any problems. And I said, ‘of course they haven’t. They’re Caucasian children.”

Despite Cultural Leadership’s rave endorsements by current participants and alumni, the program has had difficulty attracting Jewish students. This year’s class had 20 black members, but only eight Jews.

“I can only say that within Cultural Leadership, people will say St. Louis is a very segregated town. You’ve got the Hill, North County, South County, West County, and it’s hard to break out. A program like this, that so blatantly crosses lines, makes people nervous. People are nervous about getting involved or they don’t hear about it. Current students and alums are encouraged to advertise, but it’s hard to get a student to join a program when they’re on a rhythm of school then Sabra or Ramah, then community service It’s an interesting pattern that’s hard to break, ” Simckes said.

Kalish plans to recruit more aggressively before students reach their junior year through Jewish schools and youth groups. She says that Jewish teenagers often have their summers planned years in advance, and they also have more opportunities than some of the black students in the area.

“We’re a niche program — we’re for the kids who really believe in tikkun olam. That’s not everyone, not everyone is someone who really wants to bring about change, not everyone is an activist. Not everyone could be on the swimming team, not everyone could be in a play. This is a niche program,” Kalish said.

According to Stoner, the number of Jewish students did not diminish the experience.

“Honestly, I did not even really notice there was an imbalance because everyone was there to learn the same things,” Stoner said.

Ultimately, Cultural Leadership is not so much about shaping activists to fight racism and anti-Semitism, as it is about equipping students with the skills necessary to launch their own, personal campaigns for social justice. Kalish’s high expectations for her students seem to be contagious, as evidenced by their high goals for themselves.

“Throughout the whole Cultural Leadership trip, every time I thought of an idea I wrote it down. So I wrote a to-do list, and there are ten or fifteen things on that list. This was my resting week, but starting Monday, I’m getting started. An example would be, in Selma, Ala., there was a monument that said ‘I had a dream,’ and it had a list of people’s names on it. The thing is, the dream is still going. Instead of I ‘had’ a dream it should be I ‘have’ a dream. I want to get the monument fixed as soon as possible. The other sad thing about this monument is that it’s facing the public housing complex, so when children look at it they see that there was once a dream. That’s one of the things I want to get fixed,” Lynum said.