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Culture Jam gathers Pittsburgh high school kids hungry for change and inclusion

culture jam
Michael Machosky
November05/ 2018

If you haven’t noticed, the kids aren’t all right.

They’re not happy about the current state of affairs — so they’re marching, speaking out, working, organizing.

Broadly, that’s the topic of discussion at the 15th-annual Culture Jam at The Ellis School on Nov. 16. At a time when racism, misogyny and all their associated evils seem to be in ascendance, the students working on Culture Jam are trying to plant a flag for diversity and inclusion. This year’s theme is “Allies in Action,” covering how to be an ally and how to make a difference in one’s community.

“Culture Jam is basically a daylong event hosted by the Ellis School – building empathy and promoting inclusion,” says Aira Bazaz, 17, one of the Student Diversity League organizers. “It’s almost entirely planned and structured and organized by teenagers. A space for kids from different backgrounds to celebrate inclusion.”

culture jam
Students at last year’s Culture Jam discuss race and equity-related issues in a classroom breakout session.

Hundreds of high school kids from across the region participate.

Keynote speakers are on the schedule, but the main highlight of the event is small-group workshops. Aira, for example, is leading a workshop about privilege, and how to utilize your privilege to help others. A discussion from a previous Culture Jam “really stuck with me,” she says. “It was about the dehumanization of black women throughout history. That was really powerful.”

The idea is to broach topics that aren’t always appropriate in class.

“Culture Jam workshops are made to educate others on topics that aren’t covered in everyday life,” Aira says. “And that schools don’t really cover if they’re trying to not politicize lessons.

“Culture Jam is not a typical high school event. It’s not a bake sale or dance. It’s a place for students to come together to use their power, influence and talents to create a better future for our city.”

culture jam
An Ellis student leads a group conversation on building bridges between communities.

There’s one issue that’s at the top of everyone’s mind.

“For my friends, there’s a lot of discussion about gun violence. A lot about the shooting of Antwon Rose and the tragedy at Tree of Life,” Aira says. “Especially looking at it from a racial standpoint.”

Sometimes, the problems seem almost unfathomably large for relatively powerless teenagers to tackle.

“Especially in today’s political climate, it’s important to be aware and active for advocating for progressive change,” Aira says. That means “using your privilege to help others who are being discriminated against. Using any power you have to help others and take action.”

One message that these teens hope gets through: You aren’t as powerless as you think.

“I think kids can have an impact on any issue,” Aira says. “Take the Parkland students or any of the students attending marches around the world. Young people are the face of this revolution. We’re the ones advocating for change. That’s why Culture Jam is run by people like me.

“We’re the ones who will change the world one day.”

Michael Machosky

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