Students Challenge Cliques Nationwide

Lunchtime activity encourages children to leave their 'comfort zone'

Students across the country challenged cliques and stereotypes as they took part yesterday in the fifth annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program.

Mix It Up Day helps students meet new people and appreciate each other's differences -- and similarities. More than four million students participated at more than 10,000 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The Mix It Up program has roots in the historic city of Montgomery, Ala., where the Center is based and where Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the modern-day Civil Rights Movement by courageously refusing to give up her seat on a city bus in 1955.

Instead of segregated bus seats, Mix It Up focuses on self-segregated seating in school cafeterias -- and the power that comes with choosing to change those seats.

The premise is simple, but powerful: For one day, students are encouraged to sit with someone new at lunch. Nowhere on school campuses are the boundaries of group membership more obvious than in and around the cafeteria.

While the one-day event is at the heart of Mix It Up, many schools incorporate it into a yearlong exploration of social boundaries, ostracism and school cliques.

Consider a letter to the editor of the Salem, Ore., Statesman Journal, written by 12-year-old middle school student Mariah:

Throughout the world, there are people discriminating against others for various reasons. This has got to stop. I might be just some seventh-grade girl who has little meaning in your life, but I can still encourage anti-discrimination. As part of this, Walker Middle School is having a yearly event called Mix It Up at Lunch Day. This will happen on Tuesday [Nov. 14, 2006].

On Mix It Up at Lunch Day, students sit with different people than the ones they normally sit with during lunch. People can meet new friends and maybe even break down barriers of differences. What most people don't realize is that we're all different, which makes us all the same.

Mix It Up at Lunch Day is a small and simple way to stop discrimination, but it could start a revolution.

Such sentiment was present at schools nationwide on Mix It Up Day, from kindergarten to college, as students risked feeling awkward and uncomfortable in order to bridge the many ways we choose to divide ourselves -- along lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability and so on.

And while Mix It Up happened at schools, the root of the prejudices found at schools too often starts at home.

"I think that kids, left to their own devices, know how to mix it up naturally," said Donald Hampton, assistant principal at Hall-Woodward Elementary in Winston-Salem, N.C., where students participated in this year’s Mix It Up Day.

"It's grownups who impose those prejudices on them. What's great about Mix It Up is that it's our chance to reinforce the idea to respect people for who they are, not what they look like."