At Wednesday's ceremony, the audience and students took part in one of the interactive sessions focusing on identity.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It takes confidence for a student to speak out and interfere when another is being harassed or bullied.
It takes confidence and skill to step in when somebody is being targeting other students with hateful words.
Schools traditionally would bring in a speaker or hold an assembly and adults would preach to the students when something bad like bullying happened.
And then the assembly would end and there wouldn't be anything until it happened again.
Phil Fogelman, director of the Anti-Defamation League's World of Difference program, was one of those who would parachute in, speak to the students about hatred and injustice at an assembly. And one of those lectures stuck with him because afterward, a student in a wheelchair said to him privately that she was constantly being bullied by the other students and she didn't want to be at the assembly for fear it'd happen again.
"She was afraid during the assembly that if she raised her hand and spoke up, that those same students that were in the assembly would do it again. She was hoping to get through her senior year without these things happening," Fogelman said.
Fogelman runs the World of Difference program for the New England Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League. The program looks to empower the students to become leaders and make lasting change the culture of their own schools.
The student leaders are trained over an 18-hour program and then charged with passing down that anti-bias training to their peers. It hopes to provide the students with the skills and tools to interfere when somebody is being unfairly targeted.
This year the program rolled itself out in a big way when seven Berkshire County schools signed on to implement it in their schools and the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and the Berkshire County Superintendents' Roundtable partnered in the effort.
"There was a desire among the superintendents to address the issue of bias and hatred and intolerance in schools," Roundtable Executive Secretary William Ballen said.
The number of hate-based incidents and language has seemingly increased and Ballen said schools districts were looking to do something more to address that.
"We felt it was important to do a program that was proactive and could be part of the culture in the school rather than be a reactive program after something happened," he said.
At the same time, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires was watching on a national scale as language and tone was heating up. They saw bomb threats being made on the Jewish communities, the targeting of Muslims and immigrants, and a rhetoric that was seemingly increasingly based in hate. Local schools were having issues, too.
"We had called on the ADL a number of times to work with individual families in the schools in incidents related to anti-Semitism. We knew where there is anti-Semitism there is racism, there is targeting of LGBT and so many other bias-based targeting incidents," said Executive Director Dara Kaufman.
They dedicated a fundraising concert to support the work of the Anti-Defamation League and it was huge. They ended up having some $25,000 to give the organization. But they wanted to see if they could make an impact right here in Berkshire County. They brought the idea of the program to the roundtable and schools jumped on board.
"I think what triggered it is what's been going on nationally around incidents of hate and bias. They did a presentation and executive secretary I asked members of the round table who would be interested in sponsoring it in their districts and the response was overwhelmingly positive," Ballen said.
This year it rolled out to 30 students at each of the the schools of Drury, Mount Greylock, Nessacus, Herberg, Reid, Lenox and Monument Mountain. Those students then trained their peers, passing on the lessons of identity and the promotion of understanding racial, cultural and other human differences. Those peer leaders were celebrated on Wednesday at a joint reception at Taconic High School.
"These very tools that allow you to communicate at the speed of light and the speed of sound can be used to promote love, can be used to promote understanding, peace, and harmony and just as easily be used to spread ignorance, intolerance, hate and violence," said the host Superintendent Jason McCandless.
Students from Lenox were among the participants from seven different schools in the county.
Benjamin Ginsberg is an 8th grader at Reid Middle School who went through the program. His grandparents were killed in the holocaust and when studying it in history class he saw classmates jokingly yelling things like "Heil Hitler."
But it wasn't a joke for him. It was personal.
"This offended me because Hitler was actually one of those men that condemned my great grandparents to die. Although the students might not have understood what they were saying, it is still wrong to make such statements even in jest," he said.
But he didn't really know what to do so he kept his mouth shut. But now, he has a new set of tools and confidence to speak up and defend others when such things happen to them.
"My confidence grew and I was able to demonstrate my new skills in classrooms and in my personal life," Ginsberg said.
Reid student Uriah Hernandez agrees saying, "I noticed a change in our demeanor. We began to stand taller, speaker louder and with more confidence. We had more composure and started to control the situation."
And he's growing a team of other students to back up him.
The subjects of racism or homophobia can be difficult for not just students but others to address. Julie Monteleone from Lenox High School said the program helped her learn how to confront that challenge.
"It really is meaningful and doing the work feels really important to me any time I go to do it. The biggest impact this had on me, not only in the actual work and working as a leader and getting a lot of tangible experience in what it means to facilitate or speak in front of people, but also just my only peers or with anyone outside of school in my life," she said.
"I think it has been really impactful in informing how I have discussions about the huge complicated systems and topics like racism, sexism, homophobia, and all that of that which seems hard to approach."
Monteleone and Domenica Gomez led the audience at Taconic through one of the exercises focused on identity.
And now the program is expanding. Hoosac Valley, Monument Mountain, Mount Everett, Wahconah, Pittsfield High School, Taconic, Gabriel Abbot, Clarksburg, and BART are all being added to the program next year. The Jewish Federation is again raising money, private donors stepped in to help, the Anti-Defamation League is involved, the districts of Pittsfield and Mount Greylock are allocating funding.
And the United Way is providing $40,000 to keep the program running for two years.
"We've got many, many middle and high schools covered next year," Ballen said. "For the next two years we will also be supported by a $40,000 United Way grant and that will help us with our sustainability."
Ballen said the effort is also aimed to be a countywide approach rather than individual schools as has been done in the past. The superintendents see a lot of benefits at tackling the problem that all schools in the Berkshires seem to be facing.
"We feel it is strong if the schools could work together," Ballen said.
Each school will still have their programs and still roll out reactions to when something happens. But this program is eyed to change the culture in the schools to build tolerance and acceptance.
"We also feel it s more effective coming from the kids themselves rather than adults," Ballen said.