Clusters of St. Louis area teens dotted the atrium of the Nestle Purina headquarters on Saturday as the 70-odd students intently debated several mature issues that challenge many adults.
Racial diversity. Transgender identity. Religious tolerance. New Americans and immigrants. Despite taking on different topics, the groups had one thing in common: intense, but civil discussions.
A range of perspectives and experiences were key themes for "Diversity Day" from Youth Leadership St. Louis. The 10-month-long program run by FOCUS St. Louis aims to grow the next generation of community leaders. It's a high school offshoot of the organization's development track for adults.
All juniors, the students come from more than 30 schools — public, private and parochial — throughout the St. Louis region. Rather than listening to presentations and guest speakers, the students learn about diversity and empathy from each other, program director Beth Casagrand said.
"Sometimes hearing peer-to-peer really can make a huge impact on someone’s perspective," she said. "This opens them up to the idea of multiple truths and multiple perspectives in informing the way they think."
Delton Utsey says the best part of the program is meeting kids he wouldn't have otherwise. The St. Louis University High School student said that's opened his worldview — something he's often had to do for others as the only black student in some of his classes back at school.
Utsey said he's heard fellow students at school make offensive remarks that he has corrected.
"The best way to do it is you just have to stay calm and go back to them and tell them all, 'Hey, this isn't all the way true,'" he said. "I’m not saying just take it, you should address it; just realize they don’t know. That’s my advice to anyone. If you get attacked with a very close-minded remark, think of it like this: they don’t fully know what they are saying."
Utsey said people only learn when they share their different experiences. Only that way, he said, will tough problems, like discrimination and segregation, be tackled.
"That’s the only way you can really change something: you have to have a rich set of people from everywhere," he said. "The fact that we are sitting around and talking and having things like Diversity Day shows me that there is hope. We will get there. It's a problem that we can fix. And I think people should be open and ready for it."
Not everyone is open to talking issues out, but a true leader listens, said Connor Ouchi, a junior at Marquette High School. He said leaders seek perspectives outside their "bubble" and "assume you aren't 100 percent right all the time."
For Ouchi, it's important to not just hear, but also understand other perspectives — even when discussions become personal.
"With something highly emotional, it’s hard to take down your own personal barriers and really listen to the perspectives of others, the logic of others, and really understand where they are coming from," he said. "When we really listen to each other and seek to honestly understand each other, we can truly come together and find the best consensus with the group."
These are the tools with which these students and the program's other young participants will be able to "paint a picture of the ideal St. Louis they'd like to have," said Harlan Hodge, co-director of Youth Leadership St. Louis.
Hodge said exploring the issues facing the region will teach them about the "decisions that have been made by adults that have produced realities they’re living with."
"It's important that they have the opportunity to understand and explore those constructs they have inherited and that they have an opportunity to change those constructions," he said.
Utsey, Ouchi and many other participants are already taking these lessons they are learning into their everyday lives.
Ouchi is the vice president of his school's Politics Club, which was the result of merging groups for young Republicans and Democrats; he said there is "no name-calling or trash-talking." Utsey helped begin a student-teacher group examining racial studies and is launching a student-led club with kids from other schools called Students Participating Actively in Real Change (SPARC).
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