SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Parents and children gathered at the South Orange Public Library on Wednesday, Jan. 17, for “Giving Teens a Voice,” a program that allowed children in grades six through 12 to discuss race while their parents and other adults formed their own discussion group to answer the same questions. The groups came together at the end of the evening for a group discussion led by South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race Vice Chairman David Harris and CCR program director Audrey Rowe.
Harris and Rowe led the parents’ discussion, while SOPL teen librarian Keisha Miller and Maplewood Memorial Library teen librarian Emily Witkowski each facilitated a youth group, along with student aides. The goal was to allow participants to discuss race outside the structure of a school day or home routine.
“We wanted teens to have a platform on race,” Witkowski told the News-Record at the event, “because we know that teens talk about it, but where do they talk about it?”
She said that in the CCR’s Coffee House Discussion events, appropriate methods for teaching children and young adults about race are often a topic for discussion. But those events are for adults, without the teens themselves taking part in the conversation.
“We’ve talked about how it affects the kids, but there were no kids and teens present,” Witkowski said. “We want to hear their voice. And I think a lot of them don’t realize they want to talk about it until they do.”
Miller agreed that by coming together, adults and their children can use their varied perspectives to find common ground on issues concerning race.
“Their experiences could be about something completely different,” she said. “They’re very observant and can judge differently. The platform is usually made for adults, so we wanted to provide something for teens beyond their social studies class.”
Miller also said that separating the children and the adults before coming together again at the end of the program gives both age groups the opportunity to speak freely, so parents need not worry they will be negatively influencing the children, and the teens can express themselves without the worry that they’re saying something wrong.
“It’s not a traditional environment,” Witkowski said. “There is no right answer; no one is judging what they’re saying. It’s a safe space to listen.”
All three groups came together to discuss what they had learned from one another at the end of the evening. The parents and teens touched on many of the same topics and questions, including racial biases, prejudice and police brutality. One point the parents discussed was how to talk to children about racism without them learning too much at too young an age.
The teen groups pointed out that acknowledging race and acting in a racist manner are two different things, and that defining racism helps everyone understand how to talk about it.
“We wanted to give the teens an opportunity to talk among themselves and the parents to talk among themselves,” Harris said at the event. “The conversations that we’re reluctant to have, we’re going to have. There are no right or wrong answers.”