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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

In a large room on the third floor of Lincoln High School one evening last week, a group of students stood shoulder to shoulder in a single line.

They were part of an exercise on race and identity, a way to start a conversation -- or continue one.

They called it The Privilege Walk.

Lincoln High junior Maia Ramsay, president of the youth chapter of the local NAACP, read a series of statements and the others did as she directed.

If most of your teachers are your race, Ramsay read, step forward.

If your immediate family has ever needed government assistance, step backward.

If you have never lied about your ethnicity as self-defense, step forward.

If you typically feel nervous around police officers in spite of having done nothing wrong, step backward.

Consider your identity, she told her peers, not just by race but by sexual orientation, gender, disability and socio-economic status.

The questions continued and the students stepped forward and back, and when Ramsay was finished one line had become two, separated largely by race.

White students on one side of the room, those of color on the other.

There were a few people in the void, questions about poverty and violence among those that crossed race and depended on which “identity” the participants applied to a statement.

Then the adults in the room participated in the same exercise. Like the younger group, their single line divided into two.

The discussion that followed touched on perceptions and experience, white privilege and how to move the needle on social injustice.

One student, who knew most of the students in the room, said she was struck by the visual representation of an outcome she’d expected.

“It turned out how I thought it would turn out but it was still a shock to see it,” she said.

The meeting was part of a series of events planned by the YWCA, whose new director Karen Bell-Dancy got a grant to promote one of the missions of her organizations: eliminating racism.

The grant will allow the YWCA to focus on a broad array of social justice issues in the community, and one of those is bringing young people together to talk about race. The YWCA is working with the NAACP’s youth chapter to make that happen.

“We want to reach out to other high school students and form some action items in their communities to impact race relations,” Bell-Dancy said.

Last week’s meeting was the second one. The first one was on the heels of the last presidential election, providing students a safe place to talk about their fear and the outward displays of racism toward them in the days following the election.

The YWCA also plans to hold a “pitch” contest for students to come up with plans to address social injustice – with prizes to help the winners put their ideas into action, Bell-Dancy said.

The activities coincide with a national YWCA campaign called “Stand Against Racism.” 

On Thursday, the Lincoln YWCA will hold an event and invite public officials and local agency heads – and anyone else that’s interested – to take a pledge against racism. The event will be from 4-6 p.m. at the YWCA office at 1701 S. 17th St.

Many of the students who attended last week's meeting wore Stand Against Racism buttons and when the two Privilege Walk lines dissolved, the conversation began.

Some said they were surprised to see essentially the same divide with the group of students and adults.

“It’s a little sad to see,” said one participant. “Society hasn’t done anything to make the gap less.”

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One student, who is white, said because she’s a gay woman, she’d always thought of herself as a minority but at end of The Privilege Walk, she stood with the other white participants.

“I feel like part of a minority, but really I’m not,” she said.

That drew this observation: that it's important to realize your privilege.

One young man, who is white, he used to think racism didn't really exist anymore. That's changed now, he said.

“There are times racism has happened right in front of me and I haven’t recognized it,” he said.

Sometimes people recognize it, said others, but don’t speak out because of their own fear.

And then the discussion turned, ideas to take outside room 300 and to the rest of the school, the community, the dinner table.

Use social media to change people’s minds, and educate them.

Join the NAACP.

Don’t be afraid to engage in discussions of people with viewpoints opposite of yours.

Focus on educating people, not reacting in anger.

Use your privilege to support minorities.

Call out ignorance.

Speak up.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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