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Students unite to end racism

Katie Laird | Friday, April 22, 2005

This weekend Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students will participate in Challenge Day, a program intended to reach out to youth with experimental workshops and discussions to help break down various diversity barriers that exist in groups and to disband social stereotypes.

Challenge Day was started in California in 1987 to help juvenile delinquents and has since won various awards for its groundbreaking programs. It has been featured in an Emmy award-winning documentary and the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

From Friday night to Saturday evening, seven Notre Dame and three Saint Mary’s students will travel to Ypsilanti, Mich. to help high school students learn how to deal with important issues that come up in society such as race, gender, religion or ethnicity.

Trevor Gass, a junior English major, is the program coordinator for the Challenge ND and SMC. Gass has been actively involved with the organization since high school and believes the results of the program are nothing but positive.

“Anybody that goes to this program gets a lot of out of it,” Gass said. “There’s a great divide between actual experience and just hearing about it.”

Throughout the day, students partake in a sequence of icebreakers, group discussions and a speak-out session. These events help them to open their minds about others and to self-examine their own path and identity. They also raise awareness of social justice issues and problems that may arise in the students’ lives.

“[Challenge Day] helps equip students with tools to deal with any problem going on at that time,” Gass said.

Michael Anderson, a junior from Knott Hall who participated in the Challenge Day events last spring, said Challenge Day is a spark for people to open their minds to self-examination and examination of others.

“Challenge day was a wakeup call,” he said. “That’s the whole challenge aspect. It challenges you by confronting you with the reality that your life is not in a bubble, free of discrimination, rejection and a general lack of love.”

Anderson said Challenge Day responds to your own inner conflict, not one of outside pressure – which is what makes the program unique. Gass said most activities and discussions can truly change a participant.

Gass described several activities, including one game he called “crossing the line.” He said the game was “extremely moving.”

In it, students have to cross a line when a certain group such as race or religion is named. The game is meant to show how being part of certain groups can make you feel like you are on the inferior side of the line.

“Crossing the line forces you to in a moment examine your life and acknowledge the path both you’ve left and caused others,” Anderson said. “It manages to force awareness and challenge without being confrontational.”

Gass is planning to bring Challenge Day to the Notre Dame/South Bend community next year. He said he hopes various campus groups such as drug and alcohol groups, gender relations, women’s groups and others that deal with social justice issues will contribute to the program and its funding to make it feasible.

“That way it will be ‘Notre Dame as one’ doing this,” he said.

Gass also said he believes getting the local area school districts involved will help foster the relationship between Notre Dame and the surrounding community and counteract the “Notre Dame bubble effect” many students often mention.

Anderson said Challenge Day would be useful for not only the South Bend community but Notre Dame as well.

“As a school marked again as the least tolerant to alternative lifestyles in the country, many students have no idea what to do about it,” he said. “What needs to happen is that problems here on campus need to be expressed in a way that will open the eyes of the student community.”

Challenge Day was started in California in 1987 to help juvenile delinquents and has since won various awards for its groundbreaking programs. It has been featured in an Emmy award-winning documentary and the Chicken Soup for the Soul books.