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December 04, 2002 1 min read
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Mixing It Up

It became a commonplace observation of the civil rights movement to observe that Sunday mornings—church time—were the most segregated hours in American life.

Nowadays, champions of integration are as likely to point to lunchtime in school cafeterias.

Punks and preps, Spanish-speaking and Portuguese- speaking, blacks and whites—too often, students sort themselves by racial or social characteristics, rarely to venture beyond their personal comfort zones, observers say.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, students from more than 3,000 schools across the country recently declared at the first “Mix It Up at Lunch Day.”

On Nov. 21, young people from student councils, diversity groups, leadership workshops, and a variety of other organizations at elementary, middle, and high schools promoted the simple act of having lunch with someone new. The event was sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Montgomery, Ala.

“To get the kind of response we got is absolutely amazing,” said Kalvin Datcher, the center’s outreach coordinator, who said organizers would have been satisfied with half of the participation that they got.

The students “absolutely just ran with it and made it their own.”

To get beyond the divisions, organizers regrouped students for lunch by birthday month, different-colored tickets, or numbers marked on their hands. In some schools, the change in seating was voluntary; in others, everyone was assumed to be a participant.

Results were mixed, according to reports on the project’s Web site and in the news media.

“Once a few students moved to new seats, almost everyone started doing it,” a student named Sarah wrote on the project’s Web site.

But Kristin found that “few of the people I sat with were welcoming or supportive.” Still, she continued, “maybe it will make them think about or respect the fact that people are taking steps to reach out and help stop discrimination and segregation.”

Project leaders see the lunch as the start of a campaign to “Mix It Up” all year long. And in the future, they hope to include corporate cafeterias and other settings because adults, they say, need to “mix it up,” too.

The primary focus, however, remains schools.

—Bess Keller

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2002 edition of Education Week

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