Pam Brady's topic--prejudice and discrimination--may be complicated, but when she ventures into an elementary school classroom for one of the frequent discussion sessions she leads on the issue, she goes equipped with the simplest of tools.
In a first-grade classroom in Santa Monica's Roosevelt Elementary School, she sets up a rectangular green felt board. At its center is a large circle, representing a "world of caring." Also on the board are multicolored human figures made of felt, which can be included in or excluded from this world.
During four half-hour presentations with Brady as the tour guide, this visual aid explains the rudiments of prejudice through a program called Green Circle. Brady, who attended Roosevelt as a child and is president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District PTA and Green Circle coordinator for the Southern California Region.
She treads carefully into the worlds of children so young that it is easy to be surprised at the number of human differences they're able to describe and yet be inspired at how easily they find and implement solutions.
The program blends elements of U.N. idealism, consciousness-raising, self-esteem awareness, development of empathy for others and acceptance of ethnic diversity. In the just-concluded school year, it was presented to about 2,000 elementary students in the Santa Monica-Malibu district.
Brady leads the giggling and squirming group through every possible form of discrimination humans can show toward one another. In one scenario, she asks, "Is it enough to know how much money someone has to know what kind of friend they would make?"
As the session continues, she varies the theme of the question to introduce people who speak different languages, who dress in clothes from different countries, are very short or very tall, are very thin or overweight, who move about in a wheelchair, those who are very athletic, and people of different races, sexes or religions.
All the while, Brady is sitting below the green board at eye level with the children, moving the figures around to signify rejection or inclusion. She builds on perceptions already held by students, constantly questioning rather than preaching.
Ingrained stereotypes are then described as incomplete pictures on which to make a character judgment. "Is one piece of information about someone enough to decide if we would invite them into our world of caring?" Brady asks the group. The children stop fidgeting and talking to yell a resounding "No!"
This is far from a lecture session, Brady says afterward in an interview. "I don't tell them what to do. I ask them questions."
About the people who feel pushed to the outside of the imaginary circle of caring, Brady asks the students, "What are some of the ways we can bring them inside the world of caring?"
"We can welcome them" or "Tell them we'll make space for them," come the answers in quick succession.
More to the point of how things go at schools, she asks: "What do you do when someone calls you one of the names we talked about? Sometimes we act like we don't care. But is that true?"
Again an immediate and resounding "No!" from the children.
Brady eases into the most troublesome problem identified in a report on school hate crimes, issued last year by the Los Angles County Human Relations Commission: racism. She tells the students to roll up their sleeves and look at their arms. "No two people in the whole world are the same color. Everyone is a unique and different color."
Teachers, Brady said, are often skeptical about the Green Circle program but come to embrace it once they see concrete results on the playground and in class.
The program does not eliminate incidents of intolerance or prejudice, Brady says. Problems erupt just as often after Green Circle tools are introduced to students and teachers, she said. The improvement lies in the increased dialogue between children and teachers and their ability to solve such problems.
The Green Circle program was conceived by a Philadelphia social worker in 1957. Encouraged by its success in Philadelphia public schools, the National Conference of Christians and Jews became a sponsor of the program in the 1960s. The conference has since been joined as a sponsor by the Girl Scouts of America, and Green Circle programs are now found in schools in 42 states, according to Michael Bloom, executive director of the national program in Philadelphia.
The local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews is the primary sponsor of Green Circle in the Los Angeles area. It pays Brady's salary and buys her curriculum materials.
Green Circle entered the Santa Monica-Malibu curriculum in 1983. At first, it was presented in all second-grade classes, and it expanded into the fifth grade in 1987. This past year, Green Circle was presented to 72 classes in the district.