Taking on hate: Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence celebrates 10 years

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There were times Mustaf Sharif thought everyone hated him.

At least everyone at Edward Little High School.

He was a black, Muslim, Somali student in a largely white, Christian-centric town, and classmates didn’t hesitate to point that out to him and his friends. Loudly. And with fists.

Sharif, a budding doctor, was more focused on his schoolwork than school fights, but he couldn’t help being dragged into some of them. In 2004 and 2005, Edward Little’s halls were, at best, uncomfortable. At worst, hostile and dangerous.

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During one incident, a student mistakenly struck a popular school administrator as she tried to break up a fight. For Sharif, that was the last straw.

“It was somebody who was really liked and really respected,” Sharif said. “It was somebody I really respect to this day. When she got hit, I was like, ‘Wow, this is ridiculous.'”

Sharif wasn’t the only student who felt that way, but neither he nor the other teenagers knew how to change a school of 1,100 people. At least not without some help.

That help came from the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence.

When administrators called, the center responded. It led intense, small-group discussions with students, response training for teachers and citywide meetings with parents and others. It created a student leader program and encouraged kids to stand up for their harassed classmates. It changed the way students related to each other.

And, slowly, the fights stopped. The harassment eased. Students, even if they didn’t agree with each other, started at least respecting each other.

“We’ve seen a huge change in the culture,” said Assistant Principal Leslie Morrill.

It’s the kind of success story the center’s executive director, Steve Wessler, hardly dared hope for when he founded it 10 years ago.

And the dozens — possibly hundreds — of success stories just like it in schools and communities throughout Maine, across the country and around the world? Beyond his wildest imagination.

“I would have said, ‘That’s ludicrous,’” he said.

Taking a risk

In the 1990s, Wessler was a Maine assistant attorney general with a focus on consumer protection. Normally, that meant prosecuting fraud and other white-collar crimes. But hate crimes — those based on racial, religious or other bias — interested then-Attorney General Andrew Ketterer, who was orphaned at a young age and often felt ostracized because of it. And they interested Wessler, who is Jewish and has empathy for other people who are often the target of prejudice.

“It was a time of a lot of intolerance,” said Ketterer, who now runs a private law practice in Norridgewock. “You think now about saying, ‘Should gays be able to marry?’ This is a far cry from where we were. We were sort of saying, ‘Should gays be able to go to their jobs and get home safely without having their heads bashed in?’”

Wessler’s consumer-protection caseload expanded to include civil rights cases. As part of that, he began studying the state’s hate crimes. And he discovered something that no one, including Ketterer, expected. More than half of the people behind those hate crimes were white, teenage boys.

That surprised Ketterer.

“I’m thinking of 35-year-old thugs roughing up people or something,” he said. “It turned out that, while there was some of that going on, more than half of it was young kids.”

Young kids whose attitudes and behavior could be changed, they believed. With money from a federal Department of Justice grant, Wessler and the Attorney General’s Office started the Civil Rights Teams Project, a program to teach schoolchildren that their words can hurt others, to encourage them to stand up for bullied classmates and to create a safe environment with trusted adults willing to deal with harassment issues. Eighteen middle and high schools joined the project in 1996. Today, more than 240 are involved.

But while the project was gratifying, it was only a small part of Wessler’s job and he thought he could do more to stop violent hate crimes. He wanted to do more.

“Violence was never the beginning of anything,” he said. “It was always the end of an escalating pattern of conduct starting with language that nobody would interrupt, sending the message that it was acceptable. And then somebody would always take it to the next step. I finally got to the point where I said, ‘I really want to focus on prevention.’”

In 1999, he approached Richard Pattenaude, then-president of the University of Southern Maine, about sponsoring a hate-crime prevention center. Pattenaude said yes, gave Wessler an office and paid half his salary in return for Wessler teaching some classes at the university.

It was an idea Wessler was passionate about, but there was no guarantee the center would survive its first months, let alone thrive long-term. The father of two boys, leaving his steady job at the AG’s office was a risk for Wessler. But it was a risk he felt compelled to take.

Later that year, he opened the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence. Like the Civil Rights Teams Project, the center was initially focused on schools, but it would provide more intense, sustained attention, training and advocacy than had ever been provided to Maine schools by anyone before.

Even though, at first, Wessler was the only employee.

A school in crisis

The center’s one-person operation didn’t last long. Soon the center had several staff members paid through grants and other funding, including people trained to lead passionate, small group discussions with students who couldn’t get along with each other — a kind of intervention the center would become known for.

In its early days, the center created the Unity Project, a network of schools — including those in Lewiston, Auburn and surrounding towns — that received long-term attention and customized workshops to address bullying, harassment and bias problems. It later formed the New Migration Project, a public education program focused on reducing anti-immigration bias in communities. And it worked on research and advocacy, immediately and publicly responding to hate crimes, such as the 2006 incident in which a man rolled a pig’s head into a Lewiston mosque.

But its response to schools in crisis earned the center its greatest accolades.

In 2004 and 2005, Edward Little was one of those schools.

The nearly all-white school had seen an influx of migrating Somali students and students had trouble adjusting. The center was already working with some Edward Little staff and students as part of the Unity Project when offensive words one semester turned to violence the next.

“Things erupted from then on,” said Morrill, the assistant principal.

As with other situations, the center’s goal wasn’t to change students’ minds about each other. It didn’t need Catholic students to suddenly embrace Islam, for example. But it did want students to respect each other enough to stop the fights, the harassment, the insults and racial slurs they hurled at each other in the hallway.

Sharif was one of the first students to agree to meet in small groups to talk things out. He wanted his school to be safer, and he wanted to be a leader in getting it that way.

But those small group conversations weren’t easy.

“It happened to bring out people’s real intentions and real character. We talked about real issues,” Sharif said. “At first, things got worse. It got to the point that people were getting in each others’ faces.”

At the same time, Wessler’s center worked with school staff on recognizing their own biases. It taught them how to respond to harassment and deal with students’ hostility toward each other. The center also hosted meetings with parents and others in an effort to dispel community-wide rumors, bust stereotypes and forge respect among the adults in students’ lives.

Slowly, the atmosphere at Edward Little changed.

A Bates College assistant professor of psychology later studied the effect on the high school of the center’s intervention. It found a 61 percent drop in violence between 2004-05 and 2005-06, a 63 percent drop in threats and an 81 percent drop in verbal harassment. It also found a 44 percent drop in absenteeism.

Morrill attributed the changes to the center.

“I don’t think we could have done it without them,” she said. “We were so busy just putting out fires.”

Sharif, too, credits the center.

“It was basically getting everything out on the table,” he said. “Without that dialogue, I don’t think it would have been possible.”

Wessler, however, credits the students for doing the work, for passing on what they’d learned, for speaking up.

“What ended it was 25 kids,” he said. “They collectively had conversations with 150 kids. They just didn’t realize the impact they had.”

Celebrating 10 years

Ten years after he founded the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence as a risky, one-man operation in an office donated by USM, Wessler’s life has changed.

Able to stand on its own, the center — now with about a dozen employees — is no longer affiliated with USM. It recently moved to its own space at 509 Forest Ave. in Portland. Wessler pays for the center’s work through grants and fees for service, though he charges schools as little as possible and never charges any school for crisis intervention services. Word of the center’s work has spread so far that Wessler and his staff have been invited to work in schools and businesses throughout America, and as far away as Eastern Europe and Northern Ireland.

As an assistant attorney general, he was privy to the details of horrifying hate crimes. But as the executive director of the center, he’s privy to a different kind of horror — kids who can’t walk the halls of their schools without hearing slurs yelled at them, kids who fear their classmates will one day kill them for being the wrong religion or the wrong race or the wrong sexual orientation, kids who not only have a plan to kill themselves but also carry the method with them, ready for the day they can no longer take the harassment.

The stress of it all has weighed on the center’s staff. Burdened by a constant stream of negative stories, they try to share positive ones. They’ve learned some ways to cope from a counselor the center brought in to host a workshop. And they find their own ways to deal.

Wessler copes by getting in his canoe and going outside for a while. And every day he carries a stack of index cards used in one of the center’s exercises with students. On the cards kids have written about their lives, their fears, their problems.

“It’s also, in a strange way that I have trouble completely articulating to myself, that I want to, in some way, carry some of the weight of their pain,” he said. “Believe me, I know that’s not true. I know it’s not actually accurate. But I think the center in some ways does that.”

Despite the stress and sadness of the job, Wessler still gets inspiration from the teenagers he’s worked with. Since he started his civil rights work with the AG’s office in the early 1990s, he’s kept a list in his head of his personal heroes. Today, that list is made up almost entirely of high school students.

“We’re asking kids to do things that are against, from their perspective, their immediate self-interest. We’re not just asking them to stop saying degrading language; we’re asking them to speak up for somebody else,” he said. “And they’re willing to do it much more easily than adults.”

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the center will officially become the Center for Preventing Hate, emphasizing its mission while streamlining its cumbersome name. On April 8, it will host a two-hour evening event featuring exhibits from and about the kids the center has worked with. The event will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 48 Fore St. in Portland. There is no cost to attend.

Over the years, the center has been criticized for its work. Some community members and others believe the center stirs up issues and that the best way to deal with violence and harassment is to let them die down on their own. It’s a sentiment the center’s staff members understand but don’t agree with.

“I think the tendency is to shy away from (conflict), when in fact all that might be needed is to humanize people to each other and to get people to know each other as individuals,” said Assistant Director Nicole Manganelli. “In my experience, when people don’t have an outlet, that’s when things boil over.”

The center has no plan to stop its work. In fact, it’s branching out.

As part of a program called Healing Hospitals, the center is working with Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston to raise awareness of the danger of bias in hospitals — which can easily become a life-or-death barrier to care — and teach hospital staff how to reduce that bias.

“We decided that it was time for us to pay attention to the fact that all of us have biases and stereotypes,” said Jeri Maurer, director of guest relations for the hospital

Wessler’s goal for the center’s next 10 years is simple: that it continue.

“It’s something I just care deeply about,” he said. “I couldn’t have imagined what it was going to become.”

ltice@sunjournal.com

2008: 64 (50 percent racial, 30.3 percent sexual orientation, 12.1 percent religion, 7.6 percent ethnicity/national origin)

2007: 72 (55.7 percent racial, 30.4 percent sexual orientation, 8.9 percent religion, 5.1 percent ethnicity/national origin)

2006: 59 (49.2 percent racial, 27.9 percent sexual orientation, 13.1 percent religion, 8.2 percent ethnicity/national origin, 1.6 percent disability)

2005: 61 (37.7 percent racial, 34.4 percent sexual orientation, 24.6 percent religion, 3.3 percent ethnicity/national origin)

2004: 67 ( 51.9 percent sexual orientation, 37 percent racial, 8.6 percent religion, 2.5 percent ethnicity/national origin)

2003: 79 (48.1 percent racial, 34.2 percent sexual orientation, 10.1 percent religion, 7.6 percent ethnicity/national origin)

2002: 36 (58.3 percent racial, 27.8 percent sexual orientation, 8.3 perce nt ethnicity/national origin, 5.6 percent religion)

2001: 32 (50 percent racial, 37.5 percent sexual orientation, 9.4 percent ethnicity/national origin, 3.1 percent religion)

2000: 28 (46.4 percent sexual orientation, 39.3 percent racial, 10.7 percent religion, 3.6 percent ethnicity/national origin)

1999: 22 (31.8 percent sexual orientation, 27.3 percent racial, 27.3 percent religion, 9.1 percent ethnicity/national origin, 4.5 percent disability)

1998: 57 (40.2 percent racial, 40.2 percent sexual orientation, 13.4 percent religion, 4.9 percent disability, 1.2 percent ethnicity/national origin)

1997: 58 (48.3 percent racial, 43.1 percent sexual orientation, 8.6 percent religion)

1996: 60 (65.5 percent racial, 25.9 percent sexual orientation, 5.2 percent religion, 3.4 percent ethnicity/national origin)

1995: 76 (50.6 percent racial, 34.6 percent sexual orientation, 7.4 percent religion, 7.4 percent ethnicity/national origin)

(Source: Maine Department of Public Safety)

Formal actions under Maine’s Civil Rights Act

2009: 8

2008: 9

2007: 7

2006: 11

2005: 14

2004: 12

2003: 11

2002: 22

2001: 24

2000: 10

1999: 14

(Source: Maine Attorney General’s Office)

Reported civil rights violations

2006: 63

2005: 77

2004: 108

2003: 111

2002: 106

2001: 101

2000: 106

1999: 101

(Source: Maine Attorney General’s Office)

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