Sitting only with friends, sticking with what is known or just keeping within one’s comfort zone – any of these seemingly benign practices can detract from the full and diverse life offered by high school and college, author Mawi Asgedom said at the youth summit at Evanston Township High School on May 3. Mr. Asgedom, author of “Of Beetles & Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard,” described his first meal in a Harvard lunchroom, where he had to choose between eating with his three white roommates and joining a table of primarily African-American students. The Ethiopian-born Mr. Asgedom asked the group of about 70 persons to consider whether they would have stayed with the roommates, who were different, or joined the group of similar students. At the end of his speech he told them what his decision was that day and why he thought they should do the same thing.

“If you decide to keep with one group, you limit yourself,” Mr. Asgedom said. “It’s going to affect you later on in life and college. This high school forces you to be in the same building, sitting in the same classrooms, passing each other in the corridors, eating in the same cafeteria. …This is your chance, in high school and college. This is going to be your best chance.”

Earlier in the day, the students divided into five groups and brainstormed on several aspects of modern-day segregation, their symptoms and ways to address them: segregation in schools, in the media and within groups, residential segregation and sexism.

Jackie Newsome, a member of the City’s Youth Council, helped facilitate discussion on segregation within a group. Among the symptoms, her group said, are hate crimes, tension and reinforcement of the color barrier. Some of the other symptoms included “It doesn’t prepare people for the real world;” “It produces hatred;” “It produces limitation;” and it “causes violence.”

After discussion and brainstorming, the students proposed as solutions education and self-reflection.

“I feel great about this,” Jackie told the RoundTable – “not just about what was said but about the fact that these things were said – that people were willing to speak the truth about this.”

The members of the City’s youth council, staffed by Sol Anderson, spent several weeks putting the event together. Entertainment at lunch time was a video the students put together, asking about segregation at ETHS. The young filmmakers asked representative students about segregation at the high school – where they saw it and how it affected their lives. “In my English class, the black students sit with black students and the white students sit with white, but everybody’s fine with each other,” one student said.

Almost all the students echoed the sentiment that segregation is pervasive – they said they saw it in the hallways, the classrooms, the lunchrooms.

Yet when asked how segregation affected them, every one of those same students said they were not affected by racism: “It does not affect my life – I’m open to everyone.” “I know a lot of people.” “I’m not affected.” “It doesn’t affect me because I sit with different people at lunch.”

The video closed with this tag: “If all of us are so personally open, why does segregation exist?”

Reasons to Reach Out

At the youth summit on May 3, author Mawi Asgedom urged students to take advantage of the opportunity to connect with students from different cultures and backgrounds while they are in high school and college. “”If you can’t find a way to connect with each other now, is there a chance that you will connect with somebody in your neighborhood area eight years from now?”” he asked.

Mr. Asgedom gave three reasons for building cross-cultural relationships:

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“”One of the things that limit people in a group is they only hang out with persons in their own group. That means they’re not building bridges and connecting with other groups. The ability to reach out and talk to other people is a key to succeeding. … Every group has something different to offer.””

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“”You’re going to be limited to the power and influence of the group you select if you self-segregate.””

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“”Life is a lot more fun if you allow other people to teach you different ways to enjoy life. … Check out how different cultures enjoy life.””