Inception of Unlearning Stereotypes Program

The New York City Civil Rights Coalition established “Unlearning Stereotypes: Civil Rights and Race Relations Program,” an educational program that teaches and encourages high school students to confront racial stereotyping and to talk with each other about the causes and habits of prejudice and discrimination. The year in which the program began was a tumultuous one for New York City. It is in 1989 that Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old black youth was killed in Bensonhurst, a predominantly white section of Brooklyn. This death signaled another tragedy of racial violence. The New York City Civil Rights Coalition’s response was almost immediate. We developed the course on “Civil Rights and Race Relations,” and implemented the program at New Utrecht High School in the heart of Bensonhurst. To teach the course, we dispatched two lawyers, one black and one white, to take over a high school class at the school, once a week, every week for an entire semester. Each Friday morning, our volunteers engaged the students using Socratic teaching methods, role-playing, debate exercises, and courtroom scenarios, which encouraged the students to think critically about stereotyping. The next semester, the same volunteers returned to continue the program and to team-teach the same course to other high school classes. These two volunteer lawyers still go to New Utrecht High School, every week, up to today.

Since the pilot program held at New Utrecht High School, the New York Civil Rights Coalition’s Unlearning Stereotypes: Civil Rights and Race Relations program has grown into a citywide project involving scores of volunteer teachers whom we recruit and train each semester. These volunteer teachers are placed in many public high schools in every borough of New York City, as well as in a few junior high schools in Manhattan. Our volunteers are lawyers, law students, police officers, family court judges, and people from diverse occupations and professions. They are assigned to schools in teams of two-usually bi-racial and co-ed-and meet with the same high school or junior high school class every week during the course of a semester. Successful and dedicated volunteers return to the classroom for subsequent semesters so as to motivate high school students and inspire and retool professional teachers.