Come January, Mayor-elect Michael Nutter will be the official head of the city. But last week, at a youth conference sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, he was head of the class — at least for a half-hour or so.
During his lunchtime keynote address, Nutter thanked a group of more than 80 high school students for getting involved with their schools and communities, and urged them to stand up to hate and intolerance whenever and wherever they may encounter it.
"Combating hate and prejudice is the kind of leadership we need from young people today. What you are engaged in is critically important to the future of this city," said Nutter, speaking in the moot courtroom at the Drexel University Law School, where the program took place.
Nutter's talk was part of a daylong conference exploring ways to celebrate diversity and root out prejudice at public and private schools.
Students and teachers, representing 22 public and private high schools, traveled all the way from the Lehigh Valley area and from southern Delaware. Participants, who also included many Philadelphia city and suburban students, hailed from diverse ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Lisa Stewart, who directs the ADL's "No Place for Hate" program in the region, reported that ADL officials plan to make the conference an annual event.
'Prejudice Always There'
"It made me think about the world we live in today," said Anthony Wright, a 16-year-old student at Martin Luther King High School in Mount Airy.
"Prejudice is always going to be there," he added, noting that the trick is learning not to overreact to it.
"It's about realizing that you can't judge a person until you get to know them," he said.
Later in the day, students discussed ideas for ways to foster openness and tolerance in their schools, and to reduce the bullying and name-calling that has become part and parcel of high school these days.
Amanda Roman, a junior at Esperanza Academy Charter High School in North Philadelphia — where more than 90 percent of students are Hispanic — hopes to organize a masquerade party with a purpose.
The point, said Roman, is that masks would hide skin color and appearance, and thus force students for a few hours to focus on one another's personalities and character traits.
Some students suggested organizing special diversity programs; others said that upperclassman simply had to do their best to lead by example.
Learning to Battle Intolerance
A number of schools represented at the conference already take part in "No Place for Hate" or its related peer-training program. Some, like the Boyertown Area Senior High School and Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, did so after racist and anti-Semitic graffiti were discovered on school property.
Kenneth Burton, a technology teacher at Boyertown who also heads the diversity committee there, noted that his community — which straddles Montgomery and Berks counties — is still dealing with a legacy of Ku Klux Klan activity. Burton added that despite the fact that the student body is still largely homogeneous, strides have been made in the past few years to make people aware of intolerance.
Attending events where students meet all kinds of people just helps expose them to the wider world, added Burton, as he waited for the mayor-elect to begin his speech.
After Nutter's address, participants had the opportunity to question him on everything from what he plans to do to improve public education and lower the crime rate, to whether he was nervous about his new job.
"It's like the Pointer Sisters: 'I'm so excited, and I just can't hide it,' " he replied.
Nutter also expressed hope that, after the current batch of students graduate from colleges across the country this spring, they will choose to come back to Philly — or at least to the surrounding area.
For his part, he added that, "if things work out for me, right about the time you finish college, I'll still be in office."