The Power of Peers

By Miriam Dant

On August 30, I attended the unveiling of the Ryan White State Historical Marker at Hamilton Heights Middle School (formerly Hamilton Heights High School), recognizing the impact Ryan White and his school made on their community and on HIV/AIDS education, awareness, and funding.  I became interested in learning more about Ryan’s story last summer, thanks to State Representative Tony Cook.

Shortly after the defacement of Congregation Shaarey Tefilla a little over a year ago, Rep. Cook, whose House district is just north of Carmel and Shaarey Tefilla, announced that he would be filing hate crimes legislation in 2019.  JCRC assistant director David Sklar and I immediately scheduled a meeting with him; while we were thrilled to learn of his desire to introduce hate crimes legislation, we were interested in learning what his motivation was, since the JCRC hadn’t discussed the issue with him, and the crime hadn’t taken place in his House district.

At our meeting, Rep. Cook shared his story about Ryan White and how the discrimination that Ryan experienced in the 1980s motivated him thirty years later to fight for a hate crimes law in Indiana.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ryan’s story, in 1984, 13-year-old Ryan contracted AIDS from a contaminated hemophilia treatment.  In those early days of the HIV/AIDS virus, discrimination against those with the virus was common; the disease and how it was spread was misunderstood and evoked fear. Ryan and his family were ostracized by their community just outside of Hamilton County, and he had to go to court to obtain permission to attend school, only to experience widespread discrimination from classmates.

The next year, Ryan’s family moved to Hamilton County, hoping for a new start in Hamilton Heights schools. Rep. Cook was the principal of Hamilton Heights High School at that time and made it his goal for Ryan to attend school, and have as normal of a high school experience as humanly possible.  He spent the summer before Ryan started school putting together an unprecedented educational campaign backed up by medical science and state and national health organization data. He spoke all around the community and organized town halls so that medical professionals could educate the Hamilton Heights community about HIV/AIDS, answer questions about how it could be spread, and assure the community that there was no reason to fear Ryan or oppose his presence in the high school.  One of the most impactful things that Cook did was to tap student government leaders to serve as student ambassadors for Ryan; they welcomed Ryan to school, befriended him, and showed other students that Ryan was just like them, even though he was living with a fatal illness.  Many of Ryan’s high school friends and teachers attended the historical marker ceremony.  Even though Ryan was only in their lives for a few years, it was clear at the ceremony that the bond they formed with him and the impact they collectively had on the community and on each other outlasted Ryan’s short life and continues to motivate their actions decades later.

As I listened to the speakers at the historic marker ceremony talk about how they used education and knowledge to triumph over fear and prejudice, particularly by training high school students to talk to their peers, it occurred to me that the Indianapolis JCRC’s Student to Student program is doing just that.  Since the program’s start in 2018, we’ve already trained 35 Jewish high school students to make presentations to their peers.  Our program participants have spoken to over 250 high school students, in schools that have few if any Jewish students, and in schools in central Indiana at which antisemitic acts have taken place.  Some of the Student to Student participants have joined because they have experienced antisemitism themselves in their own schools.  One recent high school graduate shared how she lent a classmate a pencil to take a math exam.  Another student whispered “she’s Jewish” to the boy who borrowed the pencil, which led the boy to decline the pencil and take the exam in red crayon rather than use his Jewish classmate’s pencil.  Other Student to Student participants joined “to help other people understand that I am just like them,” as a “way to explore my own religion while teaching it to others,” and because “I have experienced antisemitism first-hand several times in life and I strongly believe that education is the way we can put an end to it.”

Just like Rep. Cook and Hamilton Heights did thirty years ago when a boy that others feared and misunderstood walked into their high school, our Jewish teens in Indianapolis are being trained to educate others who may hold fears and misconceptions about Jews.  They’re able to show their peers that they’re all just high school kids wanting to make friends and enjoy school.  We hope that the Student to Student kids will have a lasting impact on their peers, who now understand Judaism a little bit better because someone just like them came to school to talk to them, student to student.  And we thank Rep. Tony Cook and the entire Hamilton Heights community for proving that knowledge and compassion can overcome fear and prejudice.

Miriam Dant, works in government affairs, is serving as the President of the Board of Directors for the Indianapolis JCRC.