Cultural Leadership class begins journey


Recently 29 high school students participated in a weekend retreat held at the Hampton Inn in Maryland Heights. The 21 African-Americans and 8 Jews, representing 18 different schools and 20 different houses of worship make up Cultural Leadership’s Class 4. The program brings the students together for a year-long experience to build on the long history of cooperation between the two groups encouraging education, understanding, activism and leadership to bring about social change. Karen Kalish, the program’s founder and executive director, modeled it after a similar program she started in Washington, D.C. in 1993.

“It’s 2008 and I’m so frustrated that racism is still happening,” Cardinal Ritter student Jillian Lynum said. “Cultural Leadership works when we not only talk about it here, but go out and do something about it.”


The going out and doing something is a major component of the program. Education and getting to know one another was the first task during the intense weekend immersion for the students. They learned about the long history of African-American and Jewish relations from the Jews who helped lead a petition effort in the Senate in 1838 to abolish slavery to the Freedom Summer of 1964 when so many Jews helped African-Americans register to vote. They also learned about the times of conflict such as the Crown Heights incident in 1991.

“Throughout history our lives have intersected, come apart and collided,” facilitator Cindy Neu said. “There is a rich history of our two cultures. We have experienced oppression and stereotyping; no wonder we all want to get together.”

One eye-opening exercise had participants revealing their encounters with racism, barriers and stereotypes. Each group talked separately with the other students listening in to the conversation. Students were encouraged to lean into their discomfort and recognize sometimes people say things not understanding the possible misinterpretation and consequences of their choice of words or tone of voice.

The African-American males had the most painful experiences to share including: being followed in stores as possible thieves, accused of cheating in school when they achieve good grades, being pulled over by the police in front of their own homes and being asked if they work there, asked in the lunch line if they are going to order chicken and teachers in school offering to give them extra help.

“No one expects very much of us,” Roosevelt High School student Maurice Cooksey said. “They expect us to be dead or in jail by the time we are 18.”

Those expectations are very frustrating, said many students.

“But our struggles are a drop in the bucket compared to our ancestors,” St. Elizabeth Academy student DeAnna Tipton said.

The Jewish students’ discussion revealed they hadn’t really experienced racism as much as stereotyping. Students described living in a “bubble community in Clayton.” They also acknowledged “people tend to stick in their comfort zone.”

Ladue High School student Brittney Hale admitted she really didn’t know or think about Jews facing discrimination today. Another student agreed.

“I didn’t know the pain of the Jews still exists today,” McCluer North High School student Khalia Grant said. “I thought they only had problems in the past.”

The few numbers of Jewish participants in Class 4 was not purposeful but due to the lack of Jewish applications.

“We do need more Jewish applicants,” Kalish said. “It is important for St. Louis and the Jewish community. We have too much work to do.”

Despite the best efforts of the program, its board members and friends to recruit Jewish students, one of the messages they received from some members of the Jewish community is Jewish students tend to have other commitments in the summer.

“We are still struggling to get Jewish kids involved,” board member Terry Bloomberg said. “It is important to have them in the program for the African-American participants to learn about the beauty of Judaism beyond the victimization they learn about in history classes. Our Jewish students who participate learn more about themselves and their Jewish identity is strengthened.”

Ladue High School student David Kalishman is a member of B’nai Amoona. He got involved in the program because his grandmother Arline Kalishman knows Kalish and told him about the “fabulous program.”

“I had other choices available to me for summer programs, like going to Israel or Africa,” David said. “This program is so important to me because I can help make changes right here in St. Louis.”

David especially liked the idea of students learning from each other rather than being taught about each other in a religious school or public school setting.

“It is a fabulous experience to get both perspectives and hear from each other and understand how each other thinks and feels,” David said.

Emalie Jacobs is the first student to participate in the program from Parkway South High School. She learned about the program through the college and career center at school. One of the staff suggested the program to her personally because she is “bi-racial, a leader and has lots of black friends and white friends.”

“I really hope we can form more of an alliance between blacks and Jews,” Jacobs said. “Sometimes we tend to compare victimhoods which is wrong. We need to fight together for the common good and help all our futures.”

Being an “agent of change” is a very important part of the program, said Kalish. The students take a trip over the summer which last year took them to seven states and the District of Columbia to meet with “67 past and present change agents” and visited places “important to civil rights and social change in the United States” — all in less than four weeks.

Program director Tonya Ogden joined the organization when she became a trip leader for Class 3 last summer. It was an enlightening experience for her, especially seeing Orthodox Judaism on their visit to New York. She is excited about being with Class 4 from the beginning.

“I am enjoying seeing them teach each other and the developing of friendships,” Ogden said. “It is exciting to be part of that process.”

Through their conversations the students realized every ethnicity has the same problems and issues with discrimination. They acknowledged sometimes their own behavior affects the way people look at an entire race, ethnicity or religion.

“We need to start with ourselves and our own perceptions and stereotypes,” McCluer North High School student Khalia Grant said. “I need to change the way I act.”

Students learn that talk is cheap and they need to back up their words with actions. The last segment of the program held in the fall emphasizes problem solving, conflict resolution, facilitation and leadership so they can go on to make a difference and be agents of change when their year-long participation is completed.

“Our mantra is: when you see a problem, grab an ally or two or three, roll up your sleeves and get to work,” Kalish said. “We want our kids to realize they are allies for all sorts of problems not just against racism but for everything. They will know each other and be able to work together to push St. Louis in a better direction.”

Even when the year is over the learning goes on. Kalish still remains in contact with and keeps up with the achievements of students from past years. She recently heard from one of those graduates.

“I received an e-mail from Andy Shugerman who participated in Class 1 of Operation Understanding in D.C.,” Kalish said. “He completed his master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and is completing rabbinical school. He told me he credits everything to Operation Understanding.”

Though the Cultural Leadership program in St. Louis is still in its infancy Kalish can already point to many accomplishments of its graduates.

One student started a diversity club at her school with over 81 members the first week. Another student had a Black history course added to her school which is 95% Black and was asked to be the first student to sit on their curriculum committee. One graduate of Class 2 is attending Saint Louis University and said she saw racial issues there. She has her eye on making things better, said Kalish, not just complaining but coming up with solutions. “We ask our kids how they are going to make their mark and what change they are going to make,” Kalish said. “We are building an army of racism eradicators. That’s our legacy: when we work together we can change the world.”

For more information on Cultural Leadership visit:

Published Jan. 30, 2008