Building Bridges—Teaching Kids To Rise Above The Rhetoric Of Hatred And Racism

Suzanne Weerts Elementary School

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When my children were little, they loved to build: with legos, blocks, Lincoln logs, sand. And I encouraged their creative construction. Houses of Jenga blocks and scrap wood their father sanded into rectangles, squares and nameless shapes would stay up for a week or more, inhabited by a variety of toy creatures and tiny dollhouse furnishings. I’d vacuum and dust around them until a kid-created tornado would take the structures down.

As they got older, our children continued to build friendships and confidence, connections and empathy, and I can see that the successes they’ve had in making those bonds came from the foundation we laid when they were tiny.

We taught them to be inclusive and to seek the things that they have in common with their classmates. We encouraged them to speak out when they witnessed unkindness or bullying, and to be the kid who invited others into their circle of friends. We cultivated compassion by modeling nondiscrimination, by exposing them to different faiths and cultures We let them see first hand how fortunate they are by traveling not just to vacation spots with beautiful beaches or mountain views, but also to needy communities where they could interact with people who have less than they do and experience the sense of gratitude that comes from helping others.

It was on one of those recent trips to Mexico that the profound responsibility we have to support those in need really clicked for my son, now sixteen. He had recently started a club at his high school that fundraised to furnish a new home in a Tijuana slum, where our family has volunteered for years. Several friends had backed out of the trip due to fear of the potential repercussions in Mexico following the U.S. immigrant travel ban, but we were committed to going. The people in the community where we work should not be punished for something neither they nor we have control over.

Keenly aware of the rhetoric of hatred and racism that has become prevalent in our country over the past year, my children and I have struggled to find the positives in the ever-changing and often vitriolic political environment. We have witnessed the strength and energy created when people constructively come together at marches and protests. My daughter helped a group of fellow students (many minorities and immigrants) start a march from her dorm on election night that grew into thousands marching across her campus. She joined in on the Women’s March near her University and says her professors are engaging students in challenging conversations about youth roles in creating productive change.

While we were painting the house in Mexico, my son observed how beautiful it was to work alongside members of this community and wished that our country’s leaders would come to a place like this or visit impoverished places in the US so they could witness first hand the need, the hard work and the gratitude of the people. You don’t get to know them by shaking hands at a diner and boarding a bus. You don’t see how they live by talking only to the leaders in their towns. You don’t understand how much alike we are as human beings unless you work side-by-side and share your tools.

Now more than ever, it seems that parents need to make a concerted effort to demonstrate open-heartedness so that our children learn to build bridges and not walls. When negative news comes out of Washington, I encourage my children to consider where they have the power to make a difference. Could you invite your Muslim friend over for a game of basketball? Could you write a letter to your Senator? Why not make a point to thank the police officers quietly observing your march? Maybe you could have a lemonade stand or bake sale for a local organization in need? As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” I will not let my children forget that they have an innate responsibility to take the high road and find ways in which they can make this world a better, kinder place.

In raising our children, we are building humans. We are cultivating the compassion that they will carry through their lives. We are making sure that their morals, their self-confidence and values are structurally sound. I’m hopeful that my children will come through this period in our country’s history, wise to the checks and balances of democracy and more understanding of the differences that make the fabric of our society strong.


About the Author

Suzanne Weerts

Suzanne Weerts is a former television marketing executive turned arts and education advocate. She serves on the Board of the Burbank Arts For All Foundation and co-authored the PTA Resolution Homework: Quality Over Quantity that passed at the National PTA Convention in Orlando in June 2016. The mother of two teens shares her stories on stages across Southern California and co-directs/produces Listen To Your Mother Burbank.

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