Brian Barrett and the rest of his Cultural Leadership classmates found themselves out of their element earlier this year.
Barrett, a Lindbergh High School sophomore, was one of 25 students from the award-winning Cultural Leadership program to participate in the annual school swap event held in February. Students visited underperforming schools for a day to experience how different life can be for area high school students.
"It was culture shock, of course," Barrett said. "The segregation I see every single day when I go to Lindbergh -- 91 percent white, probably about 70 percent Christian -- I saw one white student the whole day I was at Vashon (High School). It was kind of a strange mirror image of the segregation I see on a day-to-day basis."
Cultural Leadership is a year-long program that teaches enrolled students "to become change agents, social justice advocates and troublemakers of the best kind," said Holly Ingraham, Cultural Leadership's executive director.
The first half of the program mainly educates students on the history of the African-American and Jewish experience in the United States. The program's second half is geared toward encouraging and empowering students to fight injustices in their own schools and communities.
"When I came to St. Louis, I was told that I shouldn't live in certain neighborhoods because of my skin color," Ingraham said. "I was told that I shouldn't live in other neighborhoods because of the skin color of the person I wanted to have as a roommate. It's a very real situation in St. Louis that your skin color makes a difference in terms of where you're accepted and welcomed."
Cultural Leadership is open to St. Louis-area sophomore and junior high school students. The program was formed in 2004 by Karen Kalish, who modeled Cultural Leadership after Operation Understanding DC, a Washington, D.C., organization Kalish founded in 1993.
Cultural Leadership was originally open to African-American and Jewish students exclusively. Three years ago, Cultural Leadership became open to all St. Louis-area high school students, enabling students like Barrett to join the program.
"That's actually one of the reasons I wanted to do it -- I don't personally identify with either one of those groups, but I would have an opportunity to learn a lot about them," Barrett said. "The program has helped me understand their culture and where they're coming from a little more. Honestly, race and religion have been no barrier for me in any part of my life."
The same goes for Marlee Cox, a Mehlville High School junior who decided to apply for Cultural Leadership after she listened to an announcement promoting the program at her school. Cox and Barrett are members of the eighth class of Cultural Leadership.
"I do not identify religiously as Jewish, but I go to a synagogue and I once fasted for Yom Kippur. Experiencing that was really special for me," Cox said. "I did not know as much about African-American history, but I love history and I love to learn, so I wasn't intimidated by the fact that it wasn't a group for blonde, Christian girls."
Students interested in Cultural Leadership fill out an application and are interviewed and selected by a committee comprised of community leaders, Cultural Leadership alumni and board members. The year-long program begins in January, consists of about 460 hours of programming, and costs $700.
Cox said she has learned a lot about herself during her four months as a member.
"I would say I'm just more aware of the things that are going on around me," Cox said. "Like when kids at school say, 'That's so retarded' or 'That's so gay,' I'm more inclined to speak out against it because I'm aware of the social issues around that kind of language."
Along with the school swap, one of the highlights of the Cultural Leadership program is a three-week trip in June known as the Transformational Journey. The trip takes students from New York City to Philadelphia to Memphis, with plenty of stops in between. Students visit sites of historic importance to civil rights and social justice. They also meet with more than 65 civil rights activists and policy makers.
Many students who participate in Cultural Leadership decide to utilize what they learn right away. For her senior year, Cox would like to work with the Mehlville School District administration to promote diversity education and cultural awareness.
"Having spoken to some alumni in the Cultural Leadership program, I know that not everybody goes out and becomes a humanitarian lawyer or a diplomat. But I think what Cultural Leadership is really preparing us for is to be compassionate, intelligent, aware human beings and citizens of America and of the planet," Cox said. "The world is changing. This isn't the society our parents grew up in, and I think Cultural Leadership is preparing us to further remake that society for the better."
Barrett plans to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at Lindbergh High School next year. His trip to Vashon, which helped him learn more about equality of education, is a big reason why Barrett would like to start a GSA.
"Cultural Leadership is preparing us for a lifetime of small battles in a way, because we learn a lot about how to face daily prejudices," Barrett said. "A lot of it is about small stuff, like opening people's eyes and saying, 'I'm not comfortable when you say that, because some of my friends are, you know, whatever.'
"Also, it can definitely be about big activism, like being a social worker and a community organizer, which I also think it's preparing us very well for," Barrett concluded.