The line stretches across the room in an uneven sprawl. Everyone is shoulder to shoulder, and their faces are furrowed with curiosity.
Alma steps forward and says to the group, “Okay, now I want everyone to get in order according to their birthday and birth month. You have forty-five seconds, and can’t speak…Ready, set, GO!”
Everyone pauses for a second and then immediately springs into action. Hands begin waving with various hand motions, mouths begin to sound out dates and letters, and finally with a swirl of frenzy everyone is in line. Alma stops the clock, checks to make sure everyone is lined up properly, and makes three simple demands. “Point to the ceiling. Point to the floor. Now point to the front of the line.” With confused faces, everyone does so, finally pointing to the left side as the front.
Alma then looks around and says, “Now I want you to line up alphabetically by name. You can’t speak, and this time you only have thirty seconds…GO!”
Everyone rushes through the room again, this time mastering the hand motions and silent language barrier and finishing just as Alma says, “Times up!” Once again she demands the group to, “Point to the ceiling, point to the floor, and point to the front of the room.” Everyone once again chooses the left side as the front, this time looking less confused and more eager for the next task they would have to complete.
“Okay guys this is the last one, and you don’t have to do it if you’re not comfortable. I want you to line up according to your skin color. You have fifteen seconds, but you CAN speak…GO!”
This time everyone swirls around the room with anxiety, comparing arms while yelling and arranging people. Finally, the clock stops and everyone cheers for completing the task in the short amount of time.
But then Alma turns to everyone and says one last time, “Point to the ceiling. Point to the floor. Now point to the front of the room.”
Everyone does the first two mechanically, but then when pointing to the front of the room, everyone and stares. Through the chaos and mayhem, it wasn’t noticed until then that the lightest students were placed at the front of the line. Everyone begins to look around in shock and realization that subconsciously no one had given a second thought to something so blatant.
Everyone then looks at Alma in awe when she says, “You now have an example of internalized racism.”
The room goes silent.
This, is SAEDA.
SAEDA (Student Activists Ending Dating Abuse) is a youth group offered in my county through the Rockland Shelter. Its mission statement declares that SAEDA is a youth-led education and prevention program dedicated to celebrating diversity, challenging social norms, promoting leadership, and inspiring youth to ultimately end gender-based violence. Simply put, SAEDA is a program like no other. It transforms youth into people who care about the world and want to change it in any way that they can. It inspires and educates, and brings alive a new generation of people who will fight for their rights as well as others. I can proudly say that I was a member of this group all through high school.
To become a member of SAEDA, you must first complete a four-day training session where you learn about a slew of topics concerning dating abuse, oppression, gender roles, and a multitude of isms. In these few days, barriers are broken and it’s likely that you may begin to think differently about what you have thought to be true. After you have completed the training you are welcome to attend the weekly subgroup meetings where you have a direct hand in planning everything for SAEDA. You can bring up ideas for meetings, collaborate with other members, help run the meetings every month, and much more. It seems simple, but really the most important thing to focus on is that it is a youth run group. Yes, we do have an advisor, but essentially she is just doing that. Advising. Everything done at SAEDA comes from a student. Every idea, every plan. We all collaborate and work together for one goal. To educate young people and be allies to all.
I began SAEDA as a meager freshman in high school. At the time I really didn’t want to be involved with anything, but I was beginning to feel pressure from my mother to start having “extracurricular activities” for college. The advisor was a family friend and my mom signed me up for the winter training session. In my opinion it was too long and I didn’t want to be there. I learned about a lot of new things, but I felt like I could be doing something better with my time. I didn’t even think that I would attend monthly meetings after the training. I was mistaken, though, because every month my darn dedication would fail me, and I would go to the meetings and sit in the back quietly. I never really took an active role, and was always just waiting for it to end.
When I reached my junior year, things changed when we got a new advisor, James. James changed the dynamics of SAEDA into a more youth-led group by adding weekly subgroup meetings and trying to get more of the youth involved. After getting to know James he began to persuade me to come to a few subgroup meetings, and even offered to give me a ride. Through these meetings I realized that I had a lot to say. I could give input; I had an opinion and ideas. One idea that I had could be the focus of an entire monthly meeting. I never knew that something like this was even possible and it was staggering. I was always the quiet kid in the back of the room, but now I was able to present at monthly meetings and facilitate trainings. I had a voice, and with my group’s help I could make a change.
After speaking with Alma Reyes-Evans, the current advisor of the group she agrees fully. She says, “SAEDA is a way for young people to have a voice and become leaders in their community. They learn that it IS possible for them to work together and make a change, no matter how small.” She then goes to explain the impact that SAEDA has. “In the small community it’s often hard to cultivate a new generation of leaders. But through SAEDA one becomes informed and feels the need to tell others. That’s why I think SAEDA is wonderful not just for the community, but for each and every student.”
These words ring true, because it is what SAEDA does. It helps the community as well as every member. Through collaborations we have done big things like bring Shine the Light to certain high schools, screen a movie and attempt to bring the filmmaker to the event, create a petition in support of a New York State Bill, and much more. All of these things were done by us. We would sit through subgroup meetings and pin purple ribbons on cards for Shine the Light, endlessly email and contact people to attend our events, and tirelessly write and promote petitions that can help others. In meetings we would bounce ideas off of each other, such as spinning an idea about advertising and the media into a “Media Literacy Hunt” in which students had to walk around the local mall with cameras looking for pictures of offensive advertisements. Or even in general, just speaking out against certain issues. Every meeting we would discuss certain moments or observations that we had found offensive, and coin them an “oops” or “ouch”. An “oops” would be when you said something offensive and caught yourself, and an “ouch” would be when you heard or saw something offensive and wanted to let the person know that you were hurt by it. Small things, but still effective.
Internally as well, SAEDA concentrates on the inner person. Valerie Passanante, a dedicated member in her senior year once said, “I feel like you go into SAEDA being one type of person and come out completely changed and empowered.” She was right, because even if you don’t become a regular member you will still have gained some sort of information and feel the need to tell it to at least one person. That’s all that matters. Spreading the message. Because once your eyes have been opened to certain issues, it’s hard to close them and walk away. This is even what another student, Samantha Vasallo, said. She only attended one monthly meeting and claimed immediately after, “I feel like my mind has just been opened to something that I had never even thought to wonder about. I feel like I’ll never think the same way again about racism.”
I think that even in myself I’ve found such a change through the years. I used to just be that girl who loved art but had no real passion. The girl who didn’t feel strongly about anything and just lived life not knowing. After I joined SAEDA and began to put my ideas forth, I felt like I was doing something worthwhile and learning things that I wanted to let the world know. It ignited something in me that I can’t explain. It’s only a feeling that can be described as empowering. Through SAEDA I was able to do so much that gave me great experiences and knowledge for the future. I created the logo, brought Shine the Light to my high school, won their poster contest, was part of a panel for the county newspaper about teen dating violence, published articles in the SAEDA newsletter, completed two trainings, and then facilitated at another one. None of this would have even been possible without SAEDA.
In essence SAEDA is just a stepping stone for all the youth that go through the program. We go to the training, learn from it, take something away from it, and go on our merry way. But as we go we feel the need to change what’s around us. We become a force of nature, a swirling mass of people from all different backgrounds and lifestyles that stand together as people who want to make a difference in any way. We become youth with a mission, youth with a goal, and will stop at nothing until we get a world of acceptance and peace. Or even just a more understanding one.
I guess SAEDA could best be described as its logo. It’s a simple circle with three hands of different shades inside creating a triangle (or the delta symbol). They all connect, and have an equal sign in the middle. The colors of everything but the hands are teal and purple. These things show the true ideals of SAEDA in a straightforward way. We are all different people coming together for change and equality. We are allies, we are advocates, we are activists. Simple as that.
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