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YOUTH LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE TAKES A CAREFUL LOOK AT DISCRIMINATION

Her hands covered with gold rings and gold necklaces dangling from her neck, Christina Gray seemed destined for the right during an exercise Thursday in Temple Beth Zion's Amherst facility.

The right side of the room was where the more-affluent students landed, and the left was for the less-fortunate.

But Christina, 17, a junior at Cheektowaga Central High School, found herself on the left.

"I thought some of the people on the right would be on the left," she said. "I didn't think I would be on the left. You can't judge people by how they look. People see all my rings and think one thing, but I work two jobs."

The exercise, which aimed to expose prejudices attached to socioeconomic status, was part of the National Conference for Community and Justice's 27th annual spring youth leadership conference. Seventy-five area high school students participated in the event, "Discrimination of the Homeless and Poor: Don't Walk on By."

Fatima Johnson, program director, said the event sought to make students more aware of the plight of the homeless and also of discriminatory behavior based on economic status among their peers at school.

"It's an opportunity to bring kids together from different racial and cultural backgrounds," she said. "We want to increase their awareness of homelessness and economic discrimination (so they) really evaluate their behavior and responses."

The students, who came from high schools including Niagara Falls, Clarence and McKinley, participated in interactive exercises and group discussions and developed action plans to take back to their schools.

William T. O'Connell, director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York and an event speaker, linked discrimination of the poor and homeless to what less-fortunate students endure because they can't afford to keep up with fashion trends.

He said that perception of poor students is also applied to the homeless and other impoverished people. O'Connell said those beliefs are also held by policy-makers. "We unfairly blame low-income people for the problems in society," he said.

Jocelyn Tejeda, a coordinator at the NCCJ, led the students in the socioeconomic status exercise. They formed two lines in the middle of a room in the Broder Center, and the students moved from left to right based on their answers to questions on various topics, such as their parents' owning a home, access to a car, being able to afford medication or eyeglasses and after-school employment.

"It's a time to reflect and get the wheels turning about certain situations," Tejeda said. "It brings them into the reality of what people actually face."

Samantha Orrange, a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy in the Town of Tonawanda, had to wear broken eyeglasses for a year in grammar school. Samantha said she didn't realize her taped glasses were an indication of her family's economic class.

"It didn't really bother me," she said. "I still don't think it was a big deal. Now I'm wondering what other people thought."

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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