By Andrea Uhde
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Participating as a delegate in the Anytown Youth Leadership Institute four years ago gave Jason Justice, then a student at Little Miami High School in Morrow, the courage he needed to change his life.
Justice saw the faces of racism, classism and homophobia. He told members at the Institute about his struggle with fitting into typical gender roles. And he made it his goal to reveal his homosexuality within the following three months.
Students from these schools and groups are attending the Leadership Institute this week:
Aiken High School
Amelia High School
Glen Este High School
St. Xavier High School
Oak Hills High School
Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy
Eastside Neighbor to Neighbor Coalition
McAuley High School
The Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati
"I was going through a lot of internal conflict at the time as far as when I would come out, how I would come out and who I was going to come out to," Justice, 21, remembers. Talking to the diverse group at the overnight camp "was one of the main catalysts for finding my main comfort level," he said. "I was around people who had been through similar situations."
That's what the Leadership Institute is there for, its organizers say. It's a way for high school students to be exposed to diversity, learn about themselves and find ways to change things for the better in their own lives, schools and community.
Today , the newest crop of students is heading to Joy Outdoor Education Center in Clarksville, where they will participate in week-long workshops covering such issues as racism, power and oppression, and gender. The 50 students, most chosen by faculty at their high schools, will devise ways to help end the deep-rooted problems in their Cincinnati schools.
"It's an incredible cross-cultural experience," said Chris Jarman, program director. "A huge piece of this is having a chance to live, work and play with someone who is culturally different and be able to sit down and talk about that."
The Anytown Youth Leadership Institute is a national program started by the National Conference for Community and Justice in Los Angeles in 1954. It came to Cincinnati in 1996. Students pay $350 to participate, but they can get scholarships or money through their schools.
The camp experience changes those who participate, said Rachel Ernst, 24, of Mount Airy, a staff member for the second time this year. "Every student leaves with more diverse relationships," she said. "Barriers get torn down during the week.
"Students get empowered to address issues," she said. "They have a support network when they leave Anytown, and they're ready to break down barriers."
A breakdown of barriers is needed in Cincinnati, Ernst said. "It's crucial to our city at this time because we have racial issues that have been festering. We have class issues, we have every issue you can think of in the fishbowl of Cincinnati. We swim in them every day."
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