Battling Bias, They Learn From Anne Frank

Remember this name: Jamal Whitehead.

He plans to be your president some day.

He's confident in his own abilities, but the reality is that he may have to overcome some age-old discrimination to get you to visualize a Whitehead in the White House: he's still young (only 16); he's a minority (African American); and he has a disability (he was born with a femur that didn't develop and has a prosthetic leg).

Whitehead is one of nearly 100 youths from age 12 to 20 involved in a remarkable project that combines education with community service. For the past 10 weeks, the participants, who come from diverse backgrounds, have attended a rigorous 10-week class in discrimination and its consequences. To cap it off, they'll be docents for a traveling exhibition, "Anne Frank in the World 1929-1945," which opens Thursday at the Seattle Center Pavilion.

The exhibit was assembled by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the preserved shelter that hid the teenager and her family from the Nazis for two years, until they were discovered and sent to Hitler's concentration camps. Only the father, Otto Frank, lived through the Holocaust, and after World War II ended, he published Anne's diary.

In the past 10 years, the exhibit has been shown to more than 2 million visitors in 85 cities.

The Seattle-area students, some of whom are receiving community-college credit for their work with the project, will lead school groups through the exhibit and conduct discussions afterward about the dangers of discrimination and how to combat it in everyday life.

Many of the student-docents haven't had a chance to read Anne Frank's diary or learn about the intricacies of the exhibit yet. They've been immersed in learning about injustices closer to home - homelessness and discrimination against minorities, gays and people with disabilities. They will tackle the story of the 13-year-old Anne this week as they learn the job of docent and listen to survivors of the camps tell of their experiences.

Miep Gies to attend

The students will get a chance to meet Miep Gies, the family friend who hid the Franks, when she comes to Seattle this week to open the exhibit and speak to community groups.

Using young people to interpret the story of a girl whose words still echo 50 years after her death was the idea of Leslie McGovern, executive director of the Anne Frank and Friends Coalition, the local group sponsoring the exhibit.

"I know how capable young people are of great leadership," McGovern says. "We don't give them enough credit. We have to give them the skills, teach them how to undo the injustices we as human beings inflict on each other. These kids are learning the origins of conflict, how humans handle it and how to apply what they learn to what happens in every group. You can see in every group the one person who becomes a scapegoat and the one who holds up the flag for everyone else."

Whitehead, a junior at Eastlake High School in Redmond and son of a school principal, wants to be the one with the flag. He's seen Anne Frank documentaries on television and read her diary, and he was ready to learn the leadership part of the project.

Anne's story lives on

"You look around and see all these different faces, all these different experiences. This has really taught me to look at things through the experiences of others. I see Anne Frank's story as being very relevant to today. It affects me on a different level, of course, but I'm learning to make sure what happened to her doesn't happen to anyone else."

Terry Wright, 19, a student at Middle College High School at Seattle Central Community College, brings to the group a different background than Whitehead. He's lived on the streets and says he's had to deal with discrimination all his life because he's gay. He doesn't mention his dark skin.

"I've always been interested in diversity issues," Wright says. "A lot of Anne Frank's issues really transcend her age and time. There are a lot of issues we have to deal with centered around being young that people have to deal with no matter when they're born."

A classmate, Sarah Ketterer, 13, a student at Inglewood Junior High in Redmond, signed up because she was interested in Anne Frank.

"But I've discovered issues here I never knew I was passionate about," she says, "like youth rights and giving human beings a right to live in a society where they're treated equally. I never thought of myself that way; I always thought of myself growing up in the suburbs, a white middle-class society. Sometimes I come home from this meeting and I'm either pumped or I'm crying. There's so much discrimination in this world I can't do anything about. I cry about what's happened and what's still happening."

The exhibit promises to help Ketterer gain perspective on just what she can do something about. McGovern frequently tells the students they're expected to take what they're learning and apply it to their own community.

And the Frank exhibit is being shown with another exhibit, "Uniting in Diversity," which highlights the work being done locally to promote respect and understanding of individual rights.

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"Anne Frank in the World 1929-1945" and "Uniting in Diversity" will be at the Seattle Center Pavilion Nov. 16 through Jan. 18. Admission is free.

Miep Gies, the friend who hid the Frank family from the Nazis, will speak at the exhibit opening, at 6 p.m. Thursday; at 7 p.m. Friday at Temple de Hirsch, 1511 E. Pike St.; and at a fund-raiser to benefit the Anne Frank and Friends Coalition at 5 p.m. Sunday at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E.

Gies also will speak to students at Shoreline, Bush and Bellevue Christian schools.