Cultural Leadership: Making an impact

Cultural Leadership group of 2014-2015

Noah Grossman Junior, Parkway Central

The recent cries concerning race in St. Louis have caused many to wonder if there will ever be understanding between people of different races, religions, or economic classes. One program, Cultural Leadership, calls upon American American and Jewish teens to participate in a year long, life-changing journey that tackles discrimination in a powerful way.

Cultural Leadership is made up of 30 diverse teenage students from across St. Louis. All members meet one Sunday a month with a couple of educational retreats scattered throughout the year. A major highlight of the program is traveling to the East Coast for three weeks, where the students go to many museums and meet with people who are trying to spread social justice.

Cultural Leadership is dedicated to combating injustice of all kinds. Throughout the year, members of Cultural Leadership explore different types of oppression and learn how to respond to this abuse in real life. This program was designed to rekindle the historical alliance between Jews and African Americans. In the past, these two cultures have fought for social justice standing side by side.

Aly Zuhler, a junior at Parkway North, heard about Cultural Leadership through her confirmation class at Central Reform Congregation.  Intrigued, she joined.

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“At our first retreat we did an activity where black males and females talked about the hardships that they face,” Aly said. “It was a really powerful activity. In society, I know people are discriminated against, but to hear it from the people that it affects the most was very eye opening”.

Parkway Central junior Josh Oppenheim learned about Cultural Leadership through a family friend. He thought it was a great path to take.

“It’s something completely new to me and it offers a new perspective on life,” Josh said. “Doing several activities at our retreat enhanced our outlook on African American culture”.

Caleb Pultman, a sophomore at MICDS, learned about Cultural Leadership through a family friend, Ben Schenberg, a senior at Parkway Central. Ben inspired Caleb to join after committing to it the previous year.

“I cannot believe how much Cultural Leadership has taught me,” Ben said. “I have learned so many skills and met so many people who have helped me understand oppression and how to take action to stop it”.

Another participant, Parkway Central junior Ryan Lander, was inspired when members of Cultural Leadership came to his synagogue, United Hebrew. They informed the Jewish teens of this transforming program and Ryan was hooked.

“Cultural Leadership seemed like it would be a really neat and educational experience,” Ryan said.

There are many programs which these students will experience throughout this year that will change and educate their lives forever. Ben remembers one of the highlights that was called, “slave simulation” led by a woman named Afriye Wecandodis.

“Over the course of hours we experienced a fraction of a fraction of what it feels like to be a slave. We were ordered out of our bus and patted down, while a strange woman yelled at us and called us derogatory names and we were forced to be dead silent. We were led down a path in a single file line. No one talked. No one laughed. Just a complete absence of sound. We were led into a building. It was dark and confusing, and we were led into a boat. We were crammed in there and we heard the screams of our friends who had been led off earlier and told by the woman to act like they were dying. I was one of those people. I could hear my friends, scared and shaking, and how could you not. I was even scared a bit of myself as I screamed the names of my classmates while lying on the floor of this dark room. Then we were all in this boat. It was cramped and above us there was pounding and laughing. Many of us were crying, because it felt real. After it all we sat down and talked about it for a long time,” Ben remembered.

A couple of weeks ago, at the first Cultural Leadership retreat, the participants went to Friendly Temple Baptist church, a predominantly African-American church, where Michael Brown’s funeral was held. They participated in many activities to enhance their perspective towards African-American culture as well as learn about prayer.

The experience was a lot different than what a lot of us were used to,” Ryan said. “I think it proved to help us understand different cultures immensely.”

These activities help the students become more aware of other cultures and people. With the experiences, students in the program feel prepared to make changes in their lives.

“I hope to gain a knowledge of oppression and how to deal with it,” Josh continued. “I also hope to gain new friends throughout this experience.”

Caleb wants to share his Judaism with others who are not as familiar with the religion as he is.  He was fortunate enough to learn about the history of slavery and participate in an experience like none other a few weeks ago.

“The activity that I participated in was called a ‘fishbowl’ activity where certain people discussed a topic that they all shared and others got to watch. African-American friends of mine enter a discussion where they shared their deepest and most disgusting accounts of racism, hate, and oppression,” Caleb said. “It was the most real and meaningful experience I have ever had and I learned more than I ever could about the African-American community and culture as a whole.”

These teenagers have gained great experiences from the Cultural Leadership programs so far and are eager for what is ahead of them. These students will graduate in a ceremony next August highlighting their journey and growth.