Rosenblum: Institute's pupils not even 20 and already making a difference

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2012 - 9:40 AM

A year after Ellen Kennedy promised that young lives would be transformed by an innovative summer institute, it's safe to say she's made good on her word.

One of her students just returned from Kosovo, where she studied conflict resolution. Another witnessed the sentencing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone. Others developed bullying programs in their school districts or brought genocide-awareness programs to their churches.

And nobody's even 20 yet.

"It's done what I had hoped it would do," said an always enthusiastic Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law, which hosts the conference.

"And it goes on and on."

The three-day Summer Institute for High School Students gears up again Tuesday. The conference is the brainchild of University of Minnesota graduate Rachel Beecroft, who was inspired by Kennedy's work.

Twenty-six students, including five ESL students, several who live in shelters and the son of a Hmong refugee, will dive into 12-hour days focused on leadership and legal training, and candid conversations about brutal realities.

Speakers include two Holocaust survivors and John Bagwell, outreach director for the Washington, D.C.-based Enough Project, who just returned from Congo. Linda Woolf, a professor at Webster University in St. Louis, will speak on a tragically timely topic: the psychology of hate.

None of the youths has backed out in favor of a few more sunny days around the pool.

"Once people walk through our doors, they are ready," Kennedy said of the students. "They don't come to us unless they have a sense that they need to make a difference in the world."

Isaac Marshall, 19, has had that sense for years. In his early teens, he volunteered in homeless shelters and mentored younger kids at his synagogue. Since I interviewed Marshall last summer, he's completed his first year at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., a liberal arts school whose motto is "To Know Is Not Enough."

One of eight college students plucked for a prestigious short-term field course at the Hague, Marshall was stunned to learn he would witness a pivotal moment in history -- the sentencing of Taylor on May 30.

"I was 20 feet away from him," said Marshall, who sat in the viewing box of the former Dutch secret service building. "The justices came in. We rose." After a few witness testimonies, Taylor was asked to rise. "It took 36 minutes to sentence him," Marshall said.

That moment, and the institute experience that connected him to it, will long influence him. "I'll always carry with me the values of caring for other people and doing my part," said Marshall, on this year's institute staff. "That starts with understanding what's broken."

Renee Schwartz, 17, is one of 11 returning students. A student at St. Paul's Conservatory for Performing Artists, she learned about the Holocaust in eighth grade and told her parents she wanted to visit Dachau, which they did the following spring.

"I felt sort of tormented by it," Schwartz said of the concentration camp tour. "It was really peaceful, surprisingly, but contradictory to itself." Upon her return, she created a photo exhibit for her church and designed the Holocaust tent that is part of the institute's Tents of Witness exhibit.

Schwartz continues to speak about genocide to her classmates, which isn't always warmly received. She's eager to join her institute peers again, where "I felt like I could be myself. Everyone was so supportive. I felt really at home."

Avalon Levey will be back, too, as a staff member. Levey, 19, just returned from five weeks of mediation training in Kosovo. At George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, where she will be a sophomore, she co-founded her school's Middle East Peace Working Group.

A "social activist Jew," she strongly supports a two-state solution and believes it will happen. "I am optimistic, but not nave," she said. "A lot of Israelis have been taking part in human rights protests. Palestinian youth are getting into the nonprofit peace movement and collaborating with Israelis."

Still, the summer institute taught her that nothing is black and white. "Whatever it is, it isn't simple," she said. "It's not a story of good guys and bad guys. It's a story of complex, historical passions. And it inspired me to do the work, to go see and be involved."

That means you, too. Many events are open to the public, beginning with Tuesday evening's film, "Into the Arms of Strangers," an Oscar-winning documentary about the Kindertransport. Go to worldwithoutgenocide.org for details.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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