“How many of you have been scared to talk about your parents?”
That was the question Brandon Pacciorini posed Tuesday to fellow students from Emerson and Da Vinci junior high schools, about three dozen of whom were gathered in the Fellowship Hall at Davis Community Church.
Only a few raised their hands.
“I’m always nervous about that,” Pacciorini said.
Because when you tell people you have two moms, he explained, you never know how they’re going to react.
But that doesn’t stop Pacciorini from speaking up. The Emerson eighth-grader is now a regular peer helper and panelist at diversity trainings organized by Emerson teacher Jennifer Terra.
The trainings, which Terra has been organizing for 18 years now, bring together junior high students and representatives of various groups that have historically suffered from discrimination, stereotyping, bullying and worse. The goal is to break down barriers between students and make them more aware of what they say and do, and how their words and actions affect the people around them.
The daylong trainings take place several times throughout the school year and are open to any students who wish to participate.
Pacciorini has become a regular, he said, because it’s important to bring awareness to the LGBT community.
That he is there engaging in this conversation brought two of his fellow panelists, Shelly Bailes and Ellen Pontac, nearly to tears during the final diversity training of the school year on Tuesday.
Way back when in the early stages of their relationship, Bailes and Pontac were told to keep things quiet, or they would surely lose custody of their children.
The couple — who have since become nationally known leaders in the fight for marriage equality — each had two young children and were in the midst of divorces when they met and fell in love decades ago. But their attorneys told them the world simply wasn’t ready for a lesbian couple raising children.
“We couldn’t even tell our own kids,” Bailes said.
Pontac, sitting beside her at the training session, agreed.
“It’s a different world now,” Pontac said. “When our kids were growing up, conversations like this didn’t happen. It just didn’t. It makes me want to cry and hug you all. I’m really glad to be here.”
Bailes, Pontac and Pacciorini were part of a panel discussing issues facing the LGBT community, while other panels over the course of the training focused on physical disabilities and racial issues.
The students themselves talked about stereotypes and bullying, the things they’ve seen and those they’ve experienced first-hand.
The day started with a welcome and the establishment of ground rules intended to make each participant feel comfortable and safe. That, in turn, led to a new kind of openness among these students.
Kailey Smith, a ninth-grader, has been attending diversity trainings since seventh grade and now serves as a facilitator.
Even with 11 diversity trainings under her belt, “you get something new each time,” she said. “Everyone walks away with something.”
In this environment, she said, with ground rules set and a vow of confidentiality in place, things have a way of coming out — experiences unique to people because of their orientation, the color of their skin, their religion, even their size.
Friends she’s known forever begin talking about their experiences, Smith said, “and you learn about them in a new way.”
And Smith, in turn, reveals some of what she goes through as a biracial teen, like being treated with suspicion when she’s in a store, something she and all her family members have experienced.
“We have an opportunity to change that,” Smith said. “And every child should have an opportunity to attend something like this.”
It’s certainly needed, said eighth-grader Natalli Melgoza, another peer helper.
“There are so many stereotypes that kids in junior high and high school seem to have,” she said.
But the students who have taken these trainings to heart and now assist Terra in organizing them see the difference back at school.
“I’ve heard someone say, ‘That’s so gay,’ ” Melgoza said. “And then heard a seventh-grader who attended a training say, ‘You shouldn’t say that.’ ”
“It makes me more aware of what I’m saying,” noted peer helper Eva Stromberg.
And they see the barriers between kids coming down.
Eighth-grader Casey Aikawa described students coming to the training and sitting in their own little groups of friends, the ones they sit with every day, but by the end of the diversity training, “everyone is in one big group. … Kids who might not necessarily click, are together,” he said.
Terra leads a handful of trainings every year, reaching about 150 students annually, and Moti Fox-Libet is one former student who keeps coming back to help. The Davis High graduate, now a second-year college student, is thrilled with how things have changed since he first participated as a junior high student.
“It’s wonderful to watch,” Fox-Libet said. “Participation has increased and the kids have been doing a really great job of making it comfortable for everyone. The kids are really passionate about this and it definitely breaks down those walls, those barriers.”
At Tuesday’s training, Fox-Libet participated on the LGBT panel where he shared his experiences growing up gay in Davis.
Other panelists told their stories as well, from a transgender UC Davis student to a UCD physician who works with transgender patients, as well as Pacciorini, Bailes and Pontac.
At the end of the day, the students themselves took turns saying what one thing they would take back to school with them.
Not judging others, not stereotyping or labeling people, said some. Speaking up when they see something wrong, taking care with what they say, said others.
And as much as the panelists affect the students and their way of thinking, so, too, do the students affect the panelists.
Davis icon Cathy Speck participated in previous diversity trainings this year, usually on the LGBT panel, and says the students definitely become more aware of others’ challenges and experiences.
“They are nothing short of amazing and their openness has brought tears to panelists,” Speck said.
They did on Tuesday as well.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy