Cultural Leadership: Nurturing Our Future Agents Of Change

April 16, 2010
Written by Jane Mersky Leder in
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Nothing could have prepared then high school juniors Tyjuan Morrow and Richie Gallant for the eye-opening experience of visiting each other’s school. Morrow, who is black and lived in the projects with his mother and two of six siblings, attended one of the lowest-performing public schools in St. Louis. Gallant, white and Jewish, lived in a comfortable suburb with his parents and younger brother and attended a tony private school.

The two students met as participants in a unique program started in 1994 by self-described “serial social entrepreneur” Karen Kalish. For the past 17 years—first in Washington, D.C., as founder of Operation Understanding D.C. and now in St. Louis as founder of Cultural Leadership—Kalish has worked tirelessly to help build a coalition of African American and Jewish young people who work for change. “No two groups made more of a difference in the 20th Century,” says Kalish. “Our goal is to nurture a new generation of change agents who can help solve the critical issues facing today’s society.” (More recently, the mission of Cultural Leadership has expanded to recruit and train all students who are “change the world” types, no matter their ethnic or religious background.)

Myth of the Level Playing Field

In one of the many exercises the students complete during their year in Cultural Leadership, the program facilitator instructs the students to line up side-by-side in one long row in the middle of a gymnasium, on a hill, or in any large room. The students all face a “finish line” at the far end of the room.

The facilitator then reads a series of directives: “If you do not have a room of your own, take one step back.” “If one or both of your parents completed college, take one step forward.” “If you have ever entered a store and had a sales clerk, or a security guard follow you, take one step back.” At the end of some thirty-six of these directives, students are told to race to the finish line. Without fail, the majority of white kids get there before the majority of blacks. “To see the effects of racism so clearly was shocking,” says Dustin Goldberger, now a junior at Carlton College who was a member of Cultural Leadership when he was sixteen. “I have a head start in life simply because I’m white.”

Tyjuan Morrow knew his all-black high school was not “great.” However, he had no idea how poor it really was until he spent a day at the private Whitfield School with Richie Gallant. The expansive 44 million-dollar campus stood in sharp contrast to his decaying high school building. At Whitfield, students walked right in the front entrance. There was no metal detector or armed safety officer. Unattended backpacks, car keys, and laptops littered the carpeted hallways. “The stuff would get ripped off at my school,” Morrow says. Bells didn’t ring in between classes, yet students miraculously managed to get from one class to the next on time. Inside the classrooms, the students were active and engaged. They clearly wanted to learn. “I felt like I’d been betrayed,” Morrow says. “The education system had given up on me.”

That betrayal really hit a nerve in an Advance Placement Chemistry class at Whitfield. Morrow was taking a similar class at his inner city school, but the Whitfield teacher may as well have been speaking in tongues. As Morrow listened, he felt lost. “Whatever I was being taught at Beaumont had little to do with chemistry,” he says.

For Richie Gallant, his day at Beaumont High School was just as overwhelming. He walked up the front steps where an armed security guard stopped him. “We have only one white student,” the guard said, “and you’re not him.” Unable to enter, Gallant had to stand outside with Morrow and wait.

School buses arrived, and students piled out onto the sidewalk. “I didn’t see any books or backpacks,” Gallant says. “I could smell marijuana and cigarettes and was pretty sure I saw a drug deal go down. It was not a welcoming environment.”

Eventually, the assistant principal showed up and allowed Gallant to pass through the metal detector and enter the school. “I was never scared or felt that I was in danger,” he says. “But you could say that I was uneasy. I was the only white person—make that one of two whites—in the entire building. I definitely stood out.”

teenaged students

In the AP Chemistry class, kids talked back to the teacher, listened to iPods, talked on their cell phones, and played word games for extra credit. There were some lab tables and basic equipment. However, with almost no one paying attention, it was impossible for even a smart student like Morrow to learn much of anything.

“We teach our kids that, when they see a problem, they should find allies, roll up their sleeves, and get to work to right the injustice,” says Kalish. “We want them to take risks and relish the results.” Morrow and Gallant applied for and received a $1000 grant from Youth Venture to start a tutoring program they called SWAP. Students from their high schools met at the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club in St. Louis to help one another with school assignments and just hang out. “Our goal was to help rekindle the desire to learn,” says Gallant. “To get beyond rote book learning.”

Tikkun Olam

When you talk to current and past participants in Cultural Leadership, you quickly realize that, whatever their background, the kids' motivation comes from the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam—healing the world. Some of the students have grown up with this concept of service clearly articulated by parents and religious leaders; others have a natural gift for service—a gift that Cultural Leadership encourages and hones. LaParis Hawkins, an African American who attended a predominately African-American high school and went to church regularly, had never “interacted with the Jewish culture.” She joined Cultural Leadership because she was curious. The idea of social change had never crossed her mind.

Hawkins vividly recalls the day when she “saw the light.” She and the other 22 members of her Cultural Leadership class were on the 23-day summer trip to New York, Washington, D.C., and throughout the south of the country. The students stood together on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama, the site of three marches from Selma to Montgomery that marked the political and emotional peak of the Civil Rights Movement.

“We were lined up in two rows—one Jew and one black linking arms. We sang Negro spirituals. Bystanders were honking their horns, urging us on. At that moment, I felt we were living out part of Martin Luther King’s dream. It was very empowering and made me feel that I could do anything.”

For Hawkins, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the highlight of the summer trip and the impetus to put her tikkum olan spirit to the test. Even though her high school was predominately black, there was not one African-American Studies class taught there. Frustrated, Hawkins allied with Kalish and, over the next several months, they followed the bureaucratic trail that led all the way to the school district’s head of curriculum and the appointment of both LaParis and her mother to the curriculum committee. The hope was to launch the first African-American Studies class at Hazelwood East High School at the beginning of the 2010 school year. To date, the course is still not part of the curriculum.

Behind Every Successful Organization Is A Leader With A Dream

It’s hard to imagine how Karen Kalish has time to relax because she is the driving force behind Cultural Leadership and has chosen to stay in the trenches, as the not-for-profit’s executive director. Kalish, talks quickly, walks like most people jog, does not suffer fools gladly, and takes the word “no” as an invitation to action. She is the epicenter of Cultural Leadership and the model of “Yes, we can.”

Congressman John Lewis with young studentsKalish runs a tight ship. “She is tough, and you may disagree with her from time to time,” says Richie Gallant. “But she knows what she wants, gets what she wants, and will help you get what you want.” Kalish was the “key player” in suggesting that Tyjuan Morrow consider the Transition Year Program at Brandeis University. “I had a lot of catching up to do before I could compete on the college level,” Morrow says. “Karen helped me understand that I needed to be better prepared.” Today, Morrow is a true freshman at Brandeis. Success and assistance like this motivates students to help raise money to support Cultural Leadership and its current operating budget of just over $300,000. Following the summer trip, they sequester the students in a computer lab and ask them to write 10 letters to potential contributors; most kids write 30. The remainder of the organization’s budget comes from grants, corporate and individual donations.

At age 55, Kalish received an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She was so proud of her degree that she took her diploma to Kinko’s and enlarged it to make wallpaper which adorns her office bathroom walls. But there is no room large enough for the high school and college diplomas, the numerous awards and citations, and the smiling photos of the “army of change agents” she has helped build and train.

For more information about Cultural Leadership, go to

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