By Michael Sznajderman
For 25 years, small groups of Birmingham-area teens, from different races and different backgrounds, have met – one Sunday afternoon each month – to talk about issues of privilege, prejudice and social inequity.
The gatherings go by the name PEACE Birmingham – for “People Engaged in A Cultural Exchange.”
It’s a quiet initiative that many people in the Birmingham area don’t know about. But for the students and adults who’ve participated over the past quarter century, the impact has been life-altering.
“It is such a great program,” said Seth Green, who participated in PEACE Birmingham some 20 years ago while in high school. Now a senior engineer at Alabama Power, Green recently became reengaged in the initiative as a volunteer adviser.
“I think it has a lot of relevance, especially today, which is why I’ve become involved with the program again,” Green said.
“For me, it was an incredible space to get together – really just an incredible space to connect with other teenagers and have discussions about issues that were important to us,” said Matthew Smith, who went through the program two decades ago and now is executive director of ACE Alabama, a Birmingham-based, youth-oriented nonprofit that focuses on social and emotional learning and relationship-building, with the goal of increasing communications and understanding, and reducing violence.
PEACE Birmingham is now housed at ACE Alabama, along with Anytown Alabama, a weeklong social justice and leadership summit for teens that takes place every summer. ACE Alabama offers young people a variety of workshops, from life-skills training to conflict resolution, to social justice programs – attracting a broad range of students from various backgrounds, including LBGTQ youths. ACE Alabama is a resource for educators seeking training and collaboration to help support students and their emotional well-being.
“PEACE Birmingham has a way of changing people’s lives,” said Bobbie Siegal, who helped organize the program 25 years ago. “It gives young people much more of a perspective – of where they are coming from, and where others are coming from. It allows them to grow and become much more open-minded.”
“What I learned from the kids was just phenomenal,” said Lois Cohen, another original organizer. Cohen and Siegel were part of Birmingham’s Jewish community 25 years ago – both now reside out of the state. They teamed with Black community leaders and others to begin the teen dialogue, initially designed to bring Black and Jewish youths together who would otherwise likely never have crossed paths.
“When the kids were first coming together, they were like vanilla on one side and chocolate on the other – like a box of ice cream,” Cohen recalled. “But by the end of the year, they were all mixed together. They became friends. They were going to each other’s homes and, I know many of them, years later now, are still in touch.
“I always say, there are walls that divide our community. And that’s not necessarily all bad. Walls can help define and strengthen us within our individual cultures. But what PEACE Birmingham does is create doors in those walls, so we can come together and be with each other, and create friendships – and become allies.”
The diversity of students participating in PEACE Birmingham has broadened significantly from the early days, and intentionally includes youths from vastly different neighborhoods and socioeconomic strata. As the students became more diverse, so did the scope of the conversations. Discussions today can range from issues students face at school, to criminal justice reform, to ethnic and religious misunderstandings, to differences in class and privilege. But conversations about race, prejudice and social injustice remain as relevant as ever, say those who’ve been involved in the program.
Lisa Daniels was a student at Jess Lanier High School in Bessemer when she participated in PEACE Birmingham and Anytown Alabama. Her parents and grandparents were active in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, and her keen interest in Black history led her to compete in the A.G. Gaston Classic Moments in Black History Bowl.
Encounters With Prejudice
She said the state’s historic and systemic racism looms large in her life experience – including personal encounters with blatant prejudice while she attended a mostly white, private religious school as a girl.
“Of course, when you consider the history of Birmingham, and Alabama, we’re still segregated,” Daniels said.
She said attending PEACE Birmingham “changed the trajectory of a lot of lives” – including her own. She recalled a visit with her PEACE Birmingham classmates to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where they watched a film about students who attended Miles College and Birmingham-Southern College during the height of the civil rights struggle. She was struck by how the two schools, which were only a few miles apart, existed in completely different worlds.
The film stayed with Daniels, a standout student at Jess Lanier, and even influenced her decision about where to go to college. After considering multiple offers, she concluded that she needed to explore another world, and traveled far from home to attend the highly competitive, women-only Smith College in western Massachusetts. Now 30, Daniels is completing her master’s degree in education policy and leadership at American University in Washington, D.C., while continuing to teach full time.
“One thing a lot of adults forget: Children have to learn the history of their people, and other people,” Daniels said. She said it was during PEACE Birmingham where she was first exposed to the Holocaust and the antisemitism Jews faced then, and even now, and realized there were some parallels to the racism Blacks have experienced for centuries, and continue to face today.
“The very fact that PEACE Birmingham exists is a miracle,” Daniels said. “I think it’s a program that is a solution to an American problem.”
Cohen, a longtime educator, said it’s heartening that students today are more willing to engage in vigorous discussions around issues like systemic racism and prejudice, which PEACE Birmingham puts on the table. “The issues are a little more on the surface now, thank goodness,” Cohen said.
Smith said: “Many of the issues are still the same: minority kids being pulled over by cops, race, LGBTQ issues, youths dealing with adults, issues of faith. They may sometimes look a little different, and on some issues people are more accepting. But there are still those perennial issues – they haven’t gone anywhere and that’s why we need to keep the conversations going.”
In addition to the monthly discussions and local visits to places like the 16th Street Baptist Church, synagogues and mosques, PEACE Birmingham students take longer trips, to places like Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and to Washington, D.C. Students pay nothing to attend PEACE Birmingham sessions and trips.
Cohen and Siegel remembered trips to Nashville to visit the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson – not to tour the “big house” but to see the slave quarters. During one trip, students met with the principal archaeologist working at the site and read to each other slave testimonials, ending their visit with an emotional ceremony honoring the memory of the enslaved people who lived and died there.
“There were so many powerful moments when you learned a little about what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes,” Cohen said. “We hear so much about the stereotypes. But to have the opportunity to unwrap all of that, take off all the garbage, and see each other – see that we’re all just human beings – it was amazing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced a pause in PEACE Birmingham gatherings over the past year, but Smith said the organization is gearing up to welcome a new group of students this fall. ACE Alabama is in the midst of a fundraising drive to support PEACE Birmingham as it celebrates 25 years of student dialogue.
“It gives young people self-confidence,” said Siegel, whose son went through the program. He credits the program, and a week he spent at Anytown, with inspiring him to pursue nonprofit work.
Linda Verin helped run PEACE Birmingham for several years. She said one of the typical trips was to visit area colleges, including historically black colleges and universities.
“Many of our students had no intention of attending college, but after being exposed not only went but excelled.” She said some of the students went on to start PEACE groups at their universities, “because they saw a need.”
She said PEACE helps develop leadership skills while instilling in participants a greater pride in their own history and heritage. At the same time, they learn about and gain greater respect for others, building a more diverse community beyond their own.
Marsha Morgan, a project manager at the Alabama Power Foundation, was involved in PEACE Birmingham while a student at Birmingham’s Ramsay High School.
“PEACE Birmingham allowed me to meet other high school students with the goal of sharing and learning in a safe space. The program opened my eyes to the importance of discussing difficult topics to bridge divides, which remains a core value of mine today.”
Siegel said: “It teaches young people to be open enough to hear others’ viewpoints, and to reason rather than react.” And with the nation facing ongoing issues of racial injustice and inequity, and controversy around policing, “It’s really important – more so than ever.
“It gives students self-confidence, about who they are,” Siegel added. “They learn so much more about themselves, and become more comfortable in themselves. It’s amazing to watch.”
To learn more about PEACE Birmingham or to contribute to the ongoing campaign, visit www.acealabama.org.