A piece of Glassboro unofficially became "Manytown" for a day recently - symbolic in a conference for students on diversity and youth leadership put on by the American Conference on Diversity.
About 70 students from Woodbury High, Moorestown Friends, Palmyra High, Gloucester Alternative School, and Northern Burlington Regional High School attended the event May 22 at Rowan University to learn more about issues such as sexism and racism.
After some gentle icebreakers from student leaders, program manager Henaz Bhatt got to the heart of the day by posing the question: "What is prejudice?" Students launched into confidential discussions in small groups.
"We want to educate and empower the next generation," said Diane Schwartz, president of the American Conference on Diversity. "New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country."
She believes that Manytown not only raises a greater awareness of diversity, but that the students "start to think about it relative to themselves."
Woodbury High sophomore James Jones said, "Honestly, coming in I didn't know what to expect. It was really a great way for me to open my eyes to different things . . . things I would never normally think about on a daily basis."
Jones said the workshop brought to light words he might use to describe certain races or people. After the conference, he realized "it's so ridiculous some of the things that we say . . . . You just have to be aware of what you're saying."
Mike Lavin, a junior at Woodbury High, is a student leader for Manytown. In the summer, he attended a weeklong session called "Lead for Diversity," which he called "life-changing." It covered diversity topics in more depth and prepared him to be a Manytown student leader.
"It's up to the delegates to really break the ice," Lavin said of the Manytown student leaders. Even so, he admitted, he was not always outgoing when it came to discussing diversity that week. "My first two days I was kind of shy, but once I found everybody else was opening up, I opened up," he said.
Now Lavin helps run a school club that meets monthly to discuss how to be more aware of diversity at Woodbury High.
The Rowan conference was one of six regional Manytown programs in New Jersey that take place each year, most of them averaging 100 students.
Teachers participated in a workshop as well. Tom Turney of the American Conference on Diversity coordinated their portion of the day. "Not only is there work to be done with the students, but there's work to be done with the staff," he said.
Like the students, teachers discussed how they would handle racism, sexism, or other diversity issues in the schools. Turney said the teacher program had been terrific, with many staff members getting a lot out of the discussions.
Schwartz said dialogue on these sensitive topics was needed to better handle the problems.
"We believe that you have to talk about all of these things so we can ensure that we have a civil society on all of these issues," she said.