Little People, Big Change

May/June 2002

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Little People, Big Change

Courtesy Mosaic Project

Two fourth-graders are having an argument. Or are they? One outlines her position; the other listens, then explains why he disagrees. Suddenly, the two switch gears: they giggle, tug off their shoes and hand them to each other. Slipping on the unfamiliar sneakers, each now tries to express the other’s point of view—while literally standing in his shoes.

This behavior might seem odd on a normal schoolday, but it’s a favorite exercise in the Mosaic Project, a cross-cultural program co-founded by Lara Mendel and Gogi Hodder.

Although the program takes kids out of school for a fun week at Enchanted Hills Camp, near Napa, Calif., it is not a vacation. The Mosaic Project is an ambitious learning experience that exposes children to racial and ethnic diversity before stereotypes have a chance to harden. Each session brings together roughly 80 fourth- or fifth-graders from three different schools that contrast markedly in racial or ethnic makeup. Some of the students have rarely spoken with kids from other backgrounds, let alone bunked with them for a week.

Camp counselors lead discussions about prejudice, racial and otherwise, encouraging kids to talk about how it affects them and how they can combat it. Some talks focus on teasing about body weight, clothing and social class. “Every kid knows what the word empathy means when they leave,” says Mendel. Recreational activities reinforce these themes. Campfire songs are written by the program’s “intern/ rock star,” conveying messages of acceptance and conflict resolution. The beaded necklaces that students string represent the values they’ve learned and their ability to take them home.

Teaching such big concepts to children “is not as easy as it looks,” notes Elizabeth Cohen, a Stanford professor emerita of education and sociology. Removing kids from their everyday environment through residential education, Cohen says, is “a much better way to change their ideas than trying to do a lesson a day.” She agrees that fourth or fifth grade is the right time for programs like this: children are still young enough to be impressionable, but just old enough to leave home for a week.

Mendel and Hodder first met in 1990 as instructors in a women’s self-defense program at Stanford. What drew them together, both say, was a shared vision for incorporating public service into their lives. Today, their project appears to be moving forward smoothly: the first full group of students arrives this May, and there’s already a list of schools waiting to participate. “The only thing that’s really an issue is funding,” says Hodder, referring to corporate and foundation grants that help cover the program’s costs.

The co-founders proudly admit to their idealism. “If these kids grow up to be our leaders, we’ll be in good hands,” says Mendel. “Little people can make big change.”

—Emily E. Williams, ’02

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