A By Andrea Pflaumer
When Lara Mendel takes the stage at the Mosaic Project’s 500-person fund-raiser at the Berkeley Marina, the room has the feel of a concert at the Fillmore. Amid thunderous applause, the executive director of this unique Bay Area camp speaks in inner-city cadences and with phrases peppered with “y’alls” to deliver the salient message of her program as articulated by poet Audre Lorde: “It’s not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate these differences.”
Mendel leads the audience in an exercise called “Popcorn, Firecracker, Toast,” inviting the crowd to “pop up” if they’ve ever been subjected to any of a litany of discriminations, whether it’s because of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, for wearing glasses or braces, for the way they talk or the shape of their body. “Pop up if someone ever hurt you and you have been too afraid to say anything about it,” says Mendel. “Pop up if you’ve ever stood by and watched while someone else was hurt and did nothing.”
At one point or another, nearly everyone in the audience pops up. And the activity spins a thread of shared experience—much like the outdoor school does for fourth- and fifth-graders throughout the Bay Area each year. Since 2001, more than 3,500 children have attended the Oakland-based Mosaic’s four-night, five-day program in Napa and more than 6,000 have participated in the classroom curriculum. The ambitious program targets the roots of violence by giving children tools for behaving empathetically and respectfully with people from vastly different social and economic backgrounds.
East Bay public schools such as Cragmont, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, LeConte, Cleveland, Carl B. Munck and Dolores Huerta Learning Academy as well as private schools such as Bentley, Park Day, Prospect Sierra and Redwood Day have sent children to Mosaic. Many teachers say the effects are palpable.
Each outdoor session brings together three or four Bay Area schools—always from different socio-economic backgrounds. During the five days, students go through a series of games, exercises and songs demonstrating the Mosaic principles based on the name Mosaic: Mutual respect, Open-mindedness, Self-respect, Attitude, Individuality and Community.
At Mosaic’s annual fund-raiser, it’s the testimony of kids who’ve been through the program that seems particularly relevant. One by one, young Mosaic graduates—mainly from the East Bay—take the stage to describe how the program has affected their lives. A young girl with long braids says, “I had an epiphany and learned how to accept change and difference.” A young man with dreadlocks adds, “I’ll keep these methods in life.”
A Berkeley High student says, “Before I went to Mosaic, I had problems with people making fun of me—my body image. Mosaic gave me lots of ways to deal with it, to keep happy and accept myself. I wanted to bring those ideas to my friends, but they resisted, saying ‘it’s not cool.’ I felt the values slipping away, but when I came back as a cabin leader, I relearned them and I’m keeping them with me no matter what.”
Two life-changing events in Mosaic co-founder Mendel’s life planted the seeds for the program. As a junior at Stanford University she traveled with her campus Hillel group to Germany for an exchange with German students and former Nazi SS officers to discuss the Holocaust, in which she lost several family members. For many of the Germans it was an opportunity to seek forgiveness. But, she discovered, for some the mind-set had not changed. When asked about conflicts they were having with recent Turkish émigrés, one German army officer replied, “Well, they’re really different than we are.”
Mendel had already made a personal commitment to diversity. As a 9-year-old, she heard about and made the choice, with the blessing of her socially-conscious parents, to attend a culturally mixed magnet school rather than the homogeneous one in her affluent suburban Los Angeles neighborhood. At 15, during a summer residence program in Los Angeles in which issues of racism, sexism and homophobia were addressed, she witnessed an eruption of repressed anger and violence. “Fear and prejudice were already deeply ingrained,” she says. “All the research shows that people start to develop prejudices between 2 and and 8 years old. Waiting until high school is too late.”
Those experiences inspired Mendel to work with younger children to eliminate the causes of violence before they take root. Liz Bamberg, fourth-grade teacher at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in San Francisco, one of Mosaic’s partner schools, explains how the program fills a critical gap. “Now in the days of No Child Left Behind the first thing to go is conflict resolution programs,” she says.
Mosaic—which depends on fund-raising for nearly half of its annual budget—ensures diversity by charging schools on a sliding scale that ranges from $140 to $395 per student. School PTAs often raise the fee for their students to attend the program.
Some educators say they simply don’t have room in the course of a regular school year to carry out this type of curriculum.
Laurie Grossman, community outreach coordinator for Oakland’s Park Day School, a Mosaic partner school, describes one parent’s reaction when she went to pick up her child at the camp. “She saw him coming down the trail and had no idea it was her son; he was completely different. His confidence level just went through the roof.” The mom, who was crying as she relayed the story, surmised the reasons for her son’s emotional shift: “If I’m going to have to accept everybody else that means everybody else has to accept me.” Grossman, who was initially uninterested in Mosaic, as Park Day already had a vigorous diversity program, is now an evangelist. “I believe in this organization wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think it’s maybe the most important social justice work that exists. For elementary kids to get this is crucial.”
On a sunny June day in the hills above the Napa Valley, Mosaic’s final session of the year begins. This week the 80 children, their teachers and one principal in attendance have come from Berkeley’s Black Pine Circle School, Oakland’s International Community School in the Fruitvale District and San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in the Castro. Upon the kids’ arrival, the staff mixes things up, assigning students to cabins with some kids they know and others they don’t.
The teachers have already familiarized their students with Mosaic’s principles by having them sing along in their classrooms with a CD composed by Mendel and Mosaic’s board member, founding staff member and resident rock star (who is currently touring with John Mayer) Brett Dennen. In the “Empathy Song” the students sing, “I don’t know what it’s like to be you. I don’t know what you have to go through. But I can try to see the world through your eyes, put myself in your shoes and empathize.” From the very first session, Mendel sets the tone, literally, singing the ground rules with the help of Mosaic’s current rock star staff member Chano Tizon.
A diminutive powerhouse, Mendel, 39, is, at turns, authority figure, clown, cheerleader, 9-year-old (she seems to have as much energy as any of the kids) and teacher.
“We start by laying down our expectations for them and then they lay down their expectations for one other,” Mendel says. Clarity from all sides is essential. In the first activity, each cabin group creates its own flag, incorporating symbols that represent the Mosaic principles, like mutual respect and individuality, and consciously leaving out all those that do not. Through a series of skits and games, the staff reviews those principles and asks the kids what the world would be like if everyone lived accordingly. “More peaceful,” one says. “Less fighting,” says another. Adding a coda to the exercise, staff and students join together to sing the Mosaic anthem: “M is for Mutual Respect: don’t put me down and don’t hurt me; O is for open mindedness: see me for who I am and don’t judge me.”
Within the first few days the children have taken in several important lessons related to listening, communicating and empathizing. Wednesday’s session covers one of Mendel’s favorite subjects: assertiveness. Mendel, who holds a student black belt in Kajukenbo kung fu, understands that being empathetic and considerate does not mean being passive. “I practice hitting, punching and kicking all the time,” she says. “I think that it’s helpful philosophically to think about the difference between violence and self-defense. I actually think that one of the most important things we do for kids is teach them the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness.”
Mendel leads the staff through a three-act skit demonstrating how to stand up for oneself in an unambiguous but non-aggressive manner at the first moment of conflict. During the skit, Amanda, one of the staff members, tries to bully Lara into leaving a gathering of people who are Amanda’s friends. In the first act, Lara retreats passively; in the second, she aggressively takes up the fight; and in the third, she stands her ground assertively, but does not add to the hostile energy. The students describe how the first two responses escalated the level of hostility; how in the third, the situation was diffused. Afterward, Lara asks Amanda, “How did you feel when I was assertive?” Amanda responds, “Like the oxygen went out of me.”
Students also learn a poison analogy: being passive in the face of conflict means taking poison in; being aggressive means throwing it out; being assertive means stopping the poison. The lesson takes hold and throughout the week, the kids use the term “poison” as shorthand for violence and hate.
At week’s end, in an activity that resembles reality television, the kids participate in a final challenge, a team exercise demanding all the skills they have learned during the week. The exercise, conducted in small groups throughout the camp, requires each team to cross an imaginary Peanut Butter Booger Fire Snot River with symbolic stepping stones. Once the counselors explain the parameters of the challenge, the kids begin creating a bridge with the stones, trying not to fall into the river and encouraging one another in their efforts. Before long, the counselors attempt to test their resolve by discouraging teamwork and setting up obstacles by introducing new rules. But the resilient young campers triumph, holding fast to their Mosaic principles and alliances to make it across the river together and, as a result, earning their CRD: Conflict Resolution Doctorate.
Mendel and her staff demand a lot of these kids, shep-herding them through a jam-packed schedule that breaks only for meals, swimming and other outdoor sports activities. For the most part, the kids deliver, taking in the material and employing the principles as they interact. As a group of boys races up the path from the campfire to the dining hall, one reflexively starts to punch another. His friends pause and simply look at him without judgment or comment. The boy’s face softens, the group’s energy shifts, and the boy who was hit simply continues walking.
At a back bench around the campfire, one child sits in “chill out time,” counseled by Amani Carey-Simms, also known as “Chill Man Mani.” As year-round director of Mosaic’s Youth Leadership Project, he selects and trains the program’s teen leaders. Carey-Simms explains that the child’s mother has just broken up with her boyfriend—the only consistent male influence the boy has had in his life—immediately after her release from seven years in prison. The family is now living in a homeless shelter.
In a one-week period, counselors can only do so much for a child in these circumstances for whom some of the lessons trigger emotional land-mines. But sometimes, as in this case, Mosaic can be a safe place for issues to come up because students are surrounded by positive role models who look like them. This African-American child, for example, finds a role model in Carey-Simms, an African-American adult.
“I tell him a lot of the staff has come through similar stuff and that he’s building muscle,” Carey-Simms begins, thoughtfully. “I tell him that if he can find people in his life—teachers, counselors—and if he can listen to himself, and trust himself no matter what happens—if he can stay strong and get support, he can make it. I remind him of the skills he’s learned here. I hug him a lot and tell him that he’s beautiful. I try to give him enough love to store for a while.”
Though Mosaic staff members are not always credentialed to teach children with special needs, Ananda Esteva, special education teacher at Rosa Parks elementary in West Berkeley, describes how Mosaic’s unique teaching methods affected one child with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities.
“At Mosaic it was amazing how he got to shine,” she says. “He’s strong in listening and thinking big ideas. In scenarios—figuring out how things could be done differently, how to be an ally to a misunderstood person—he was able to offer innate wisdom. Different people have different ways of learning and Mosaic used a multi-sensory approach that highlighted his particular style. I thought ‘Oh my God, how did he pick up on all these things?’”
The Mosaic curriculum’s extensive use of music, theater and art draws in every child, from the visual to the kinesthetic to the auditory learner. Bamberg, the teacher from Harvey Milk in San Francisco, explains, “Neurological research shows that some synapses never get triggered except through music and art.”
Representing a racial and cultural lineup that would rival the United Nations, the adult and teen staff provide an important mirror for this diverse group of children. A statistical anomaly in this kind of work, there are as many male staff members as female.
Mendel is very careful about whom she selects to be a part of the program. “The interview process is pretty intimidating,” says Monica Haynes, Mosaic’s logistics director. “It’s three hours long.” For Mendel, who the candidates are as people and what they were like as 9-year-olds are crucial considerations. One question she poses is, “If you came with a warning label, what would it be?” Haynes describes hers: “Cries easily! But that’s because I usually laugh until I cry.”
Mendel could not handle the crushing schedule (her staff reports that during spring and fall sessions she often gets by on four hours of sleep) without the help of her co-founder, Margaret “Gogi” Hodder, who donates her time and effort to Mosaic. “She gives a new meaning to the word volunteer,” Mendel says. Hodder, a fellow Stanford grad whom Mendel met through a collective of women’s self-defense teachers, shares Mendel’s worldview and commitment to these kids. Raising two of her own children, including a new baby, and working part-time as a class-action lawyer, Hodder serves as a very hands-on president of the board of directors, responsible for fund-raising and management of the project.
The 2008 spring fund-raiser has been a success, enabling Mendel to fulfill her latest goal: hiring Cherine Badawi, an experienced curriculum designer, to expand the in-school program. Her next goal is to have a permanent camp facility in the Oakland hills so that Mosaic can run year-round and be more accessible to staff and students. Her long-term goal is, eventually, to expand beyond the Bay Area. She says, confidently, “I don’t know of anywhere in the world that doesn’t need the work that we do.”
For more information about Mosaic, go to www.mosaicproject.org.
Andrea Pflaumer writes about the arts, culture and the environment for several Bay Area periodicals. She is a regular contributor to The Monthly.
Teamwork triumphs: A group of fourth- and fifth-graders from three Bay Area schools at a Mosaic camp in Napa celebrates the culminating challenge of their five-day program—making it across a river by communicating and cooperating. Photo by Brian Cuellar.