Kendall Russo didn’t sit with her friends at lunch yesterday. The Bishop Brady High School junior hadn’t had a falling out with her buddies—she was assigned to sit at a table with a dozen kids she didn’t know. In fact, every student in the school dined with strangers yesterday, in an effort by a senior history class to help the school break social barriers and shake up our tendency to only hang out and talk with the people we know.
It’s called Mix It Up at Lunch Day, and over 5,000 schools across the country participated yesterday. Sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it’s meant to show students of all grade levels that they may have more in common with the people they don’t talk to than they think.
The day was planned by seniors from Dee Treybig’s history class, “The Holocaust: Facing History and Ourselves,” who have spent the semester learning about the worst possible outcomes of only embracing those you know: exclusion, racism, xenophobia, genocide. They thought Bishop Brady students would jump at the idea of meeting new people. It’s a small school, and because there is little ethnic diversity, there were no racial or cultural divides to overcome.
It was not as easy as they thought to get people to break down the invisible walls that kids—and adults—construct around themselves and the groups they associate with. After students shuffled in and sat at the table with the balloon that matched the color of an X that had been marked on their hand, there were a lot of blank stares, tight smiles and hurried eating.
“People didn’t want to go outside their group, and they didn’t know how,” said senior A.J. Anderson.
“It’s disappointing,” said senior Ali Nemcovich, “you think of your school as open and accepting, but at the end of the day, people are still sitting with people they know.”
Lecia Brooks, the outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that is normal. Even in small schools, with no race or class differences, it’s hard to get over the hurdle of “I don’t know you.”
Treybig said that’s all part of the lesson for her students: Change comes slowly, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth fighting for.
“Today reinforced that change is scary,” said Treybig. “To fight intolerance, we have to understand that.”