More than a dozen Atlanta area high schools participated in the 18th annual No Place for Hate® Summit sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. No Jewish schools were represented at the Jan. 21 event at the Atlanta Speech School, although that doesn’t mean there weren’t Jewish high schoolers among the nearly 200 students participating.
One carried a backpack on which Hebrew was written. Several wore kippot. And when asked what school she attended, one young woman immediately answered, “Epstein,” before remembering that she is now in high school, attending Riverwood International Charter School.
There were several Jewish facilitators, including Lea Levine, a graduate of Wheeler High School and Appalachian State University. She is between nonprofit jobs and in 2005, attended the No Place for Hate leadership trip to the nation’s capital which ADL sponsors biannually.
The enthusiastic young audience listened spellbound as Atlanta community activist Terence Lester explained why he launched the nonprofit, Love Beyond Walls, in 2013, to help those who are impoverished or homeless. As a 17-year-old, he slept in a park after running away from a home filled with violence and rage. “I grew up without a father. People thought I’d never amount to anything,” he said. The day he considered dropping out of high school, he met a homeless man who told him that some day he would be a leader, and that he should stay in school.
“He told me, ‘Do not allow your environment to dictate what you’re going to become in this life,’” Lester said to a hushed crowd that filled the school auditorium. “I graduated from high school, went to college and earned four degrees.”
In his motivational speech, Lester inspired his young audience to use “what is broken in your life” to figure out where and how to focus their passions to make a better world. “Are you ready to do the work that will prepare you to do the good fight?” he challenged them.
Lester certainly did. As a married man, he chose to temporarily leave his wife and home for 30 days to live as a homeless person in the heart of downtown Atlanta. He understood that “you need to know people’s story.” So, he lived under bridges, ate handouts, begged for money and basically experienced every aspect of homelessness firsthand.
“What are we doing in this country when we don’t help the homeless?” he asked, rhetorically. “When you have more than enough, don’t build a wall, but build a longer table.”
Lester also spoke about walking from Atlanta to Memphis. He trekked for 33 days to highlight poverty but “experienced hate from people who were impoverished,” and was arrested eight times just for being a black man. He also walked from Atlanta to the White House in Washington, D.C., to focus on poverty.
But as much as he concentrated on homelessness, he urged the high schoolers to find where their own passions lie. “What upsets you or makes you mad? That’s where you should make a difference. Use your experience to make the world a just place,” he said. “There are people waiting for you to stand up and do something. You’ve got to do something.”
Lester’s message perfectly fit ADL’s mission as a leading anti-hate organization founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry. As a provider of anti-bias education, ADL launched A World of Difference® Institute that includes classroom curricula and interactive training programs used by schools, universities, law enforcement agencies and community organizations.
Following Lester’s presentation, the students split up into breakout groups that included interactive activities.
“After an inspiring talk from Terence Lester about his good fight, the students dove deeply into conversations about identity, privilege and standing up to hate,” said Shelley Rose, ADL deputy regional director.
“I was so moved with their commitment to sharing their own stories and listening to others’ stories. They came up with some excellent ideas of ways to share what they have learned, including a ‘Be the Change’ video to inspire others and starting an advisory council to promote diversity. This was an amazing day to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy.”
Rose quoted a Brookwood High School student as saying, “What was most meaningful to me was opening up and being able to be vulnerable in front of a new group of people.” Another student from Fayette County High School said, “What was most meaningful to me was learning we are all different but similar in some ways.”
As in previous years, the No Place for Hate® program was underwritten by the Georgia Power Foundation with additional support from the Primerica Foundation.