“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”
The timeless words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. filled the chapel at American University’s Kay Spiritual Life Center Saturday night. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray repeated MLK’s words as he addressed Operation Understanding DC’s 19th class just before class members graduated from the program. As the program went on, the 22 members of Class 19 shared their experience growing together during the year-long program that features three weekend retreats, regular Sunday sessions and a three-week summer journey that takes participants to New York City and down through the Deep South. The students, all 12th-graders, spoke, acted and sang songs such as “Woke Up This Morning” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Each December, a handful of Jewish and African-American high school juniors come together to meet for the first time before they embark on the OUDC program. Some have never had regular interactions with members of other races, religions or cultures.
Aaron “AJ” Jenkins (don’t call him Aaron; only his mother can call him that) has been OUDC’s program director for four years and was recently also appointed executive director. A member of Class 4, AJ has had a lifelong connection with the program.
“Working at OUDC is amazing,” he said. “It’s an organization that prides itself on bringing history to life.”
This month, on the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Jenkins introduced the members of Class 20 to OUDC. As Jenkins put it, the class began its goal of making racism and discrimination “part of our history, not our present.” Throughout the years, the program has had the opportunity to hear from legendary participants in the Civil Rights movement and the continued fight for equality for all.
When asked whether any one speaker stood out in his mind, Jenkins hesitated. “That’s a very broad question,” he noted, and could not immediately think of an answer. That is what OUDC creates for its participants; it is not just one speaker or one event, but an entire experience that lasts a lifetime.
After a moment, AJ spoke of BJ Bernstein, a famous Jewish attorney in Atlanta who met with Class 19 shortly after George Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of Trayvon Martin. He noted her goal was “looking for new ways to truly understand we are all the same.”
Jenkins told of meeting legendary Civil Rights participant Joanne Bland, who was joined by other activists in the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Her advice to the group was simple, yet powerful: “Use the knowledge learned to make the world a better place.”
Finally, Jenkins discussed meeting clergy from different faiths — Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation, Chaplain Robin Franklin Vaughn of Howard University and Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center.
Several members of Class 13, six years removed from the program, still feel very strongly about the effect that OUDC had on them. “Although I’ve said OUDC changed my life since I graduated, the further away I get from the experience the more I realize how deeply engrained those changes were,” wrote Lauren Silberman in an email. “OUDC wasn’t just a way to make new friends or teach me about the Civil Rights Movement,
although it accomplished both. OUDC changed the way I think and choose to
interact with others.”
Classmate Charlia Sanchez feels similarly. “Before OUDC, I met people of other races, but I never really knew them. I realize I never really tried to get to know anyone outside my race. I simply tolerated everyone. OUDC taught me the difference between tolerance and acceptance.” Sanchez went on to say that “literally walking in my ancestors’ footsteps and reliving their paths toward justice was an extraordinary experience.”
Sam Teicher, another member of Class 13, felt similar about his opportunities to connect with his and other’s cultures. “OUDC gave me the opportunity to be with the people and in the places that helped advance the Civil Rights Movement, while developing a better understanding of my own culture and heritage as a Jewish-American.”
And, while Silberman feels that she and her classmates can “pick up right where [we] left off,” she added incredulously at the end of her email: “HOW HAS IT BEEN SIX YEARS?!”
Ashlyn Champ is one of the members of Class 20. One activity every class does during its first retreat involves people pairing up and looking into each other’s eyes silently. Champ described it as “unlike anything I’d ever done before,” and discussed the bonds that she and her friends forged through this and other activities they participated in, such as Shabbat services and Sunday Mass.
“A weekend may not seem like a long time,” Champ said, “but a lot can happen. I feel like I can tell these people anything … . I feel like I’ve known these people for years.”
Mayor Gray, in the midst of his passionate speech to the members of Class 19, summed up his feelings for OUDC in one line. “These young people,” he said, “are simply doing the right thing.”