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Pennsylvania High School Students to Lead Webinar on Race

An organization led by high school students in Pennsylvania is trying to look to the future, leading a webinar that will be livestreamed with the aim of raising awareness regarding issues around race in the Poconos.

(TNS) — After weeks of tension caused by the death of George Floyd, and other Black Americans at the hands of police, a racist TikTok video posted by a Stroudsburg High School student, and clashing political views — many in Pennsylvania's the Poconos are calling for change and reforms in policing and leadership. One student-led organization is trying to look to the future.

Stroudsburg's The Acceptance Project, or TAP, is hosting "Leading leaders through conversation" Thursday at 5 p.m. The webinar will be livestreamed on YouTube at Thursday's webinar was planned in collaboration with Monroe County United, a non-profit organization that addresses tense issues and seeks to raise awareness regarding those issues in the Poconos.

Building bridges

For TAP founder Taha Vahanvaty, empowering students to engage with others they may not have spoken to otherwise is key to encouraging dialogue that leads to change. TAP often springs to action during times of distress, promoting discourse and building bridges between students and the community around them.

"The goal of each of our dialogue sessions is not to change anyone's perspective or opinion." Vahanvaty said. "It's simply to prove to them that having challenging conversations with someone who completely disagrees is possible."

According to Vahanvaty, proving this possible allows students to feel empowered and to continue having difficult conversations with others in the hopes of "becoming a more empathetic, engaged, and educated individuals in the process."

Vahanvaty, who formed the group in response to the tense 2016 presidential election, sought to offer students "the time, environment, and opportunity to engage in uncomfortable, challenging, and most importantly civil dialogue" about relevant social and political issues. Since its founding, TAP has evolved to focus solely on creating dialogue between students.

"TAP has definitely evolved and matured since its creation back in 2017." Vahanvaty said. During the early days of the group, TAP "spread itself thin" in its mission to raise awareness for multiple issues. Vahanvaty said TAP was able to restructure in 2019 in order to refocus the group's mission.

This restructuring led the group to create a new mission statement: "Creating the mediators of tomorrow to continue the conversations of today."

Today, TAP boasts more than 120 student members that meet every other week during the school year to engage in selected topics. TAP has tackled everything from political correctness to cancel culture, and does not shy away from more sensitive topics such as sex education or abortion.

A diverse community

While the event is entirely student-run and organized, TAP decided it would seek out a local non-profit that shares similar ideas and goals, Vahanvaty said. The group reached out to MCU for support.

The MCU organization is known for bringing awareness to issues regarding bigotry in the Poconos, and can often be seen organizing events and workshops in order to bring people togetherMCU has worked to raise awareness on sensitive topics such as anti-Semitism as well as host workshops with area youth and local law enforcement.

According to a press release, MCU seeks to mitigate and respond to instances of religious and racial discrimination, as well as prevent violence "precipitated by bigotry."

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Poconos forced schools to close, the group has adapted to hold meetings online via Zoom.

Thursday's online webinar will host a six-person panel of local leaders in an effort to create discussion about racial equity in Monroe County. Vahanvaty will facilitate along with TAP advisor and MCU leader Cynthia Crowner. The panelists will answer questions submitted by high school students from the Poconos. With the help of Crowner, TAP reached out to several speakers that reflect the "diverse ideological views of TAP students."

Speakers consisting of local leaders such as Monroe County Sheriff Ken Morris, Stroudsburg Area School District Superintendent Dr. Cosmas Curry and MCU founder Tom Jones make up the panel.

According to Vahanvaty, there was hesitation to broadcast a Zoom meeting regarding racial equity at first. TAP conversations give students an opportunity to share views that may not be popular for the sake of education and learning together, and some students were afraid their opinions or questions could be misconstrued as racist. Vahanvaty found that the only way a constructive online conversation could be held would be by allowing students to take the reigns.

"We have collected over 50 questions from TAP members across (Monroe) County and will continue collecting them anonymously through our email, social media, and Google Classroom." Vahanvaty said. "By allowing students to submit questions and topics relating to race we were able to give them an opportunity for their voice to be heard by the people in charge.

"While we will most definitely have this conversation in person once school starts again, this is the first step in our mission of empowering students to continue having the conversations that really matter."

©2020 the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.