Building blocks for social changeby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
A new organization in Minneapolis is trying to do something about race-based violence and bullying in schools. Project Legos considers itself the next generation of civil rights organizations. The non-profit works with teenagers on issues like discrimination, and teamwork. And the founder Kyle Rucker isn't much older than the students.
Minneapolis, Minn. — In a classroom at Sheridan Elementary School in Minneapolis a Project Legos facilitator is leading a group of seventh graders. He asks all 17 students to stand on a rug, then points at their feet.
"Without your feet touching this ground, get the carpet completely flipped over. Ready? Go!"
Sometimes a school calls the organization after race-based violence. But usually its work is part of after-school enrichment.
Project Legos founder Kyle Rucker says it pushes kids to think about their interactions with the each other and the world. He says they start with a topic, like discrimination, and then ask themselves some questions about how to relate the topic to the age group. He wants to make a big impression.
"How quickly can we make a child that's 13 feel emotional? Or almost come to tears?" he asks. "Thinking of how you can get a powerful encounter with these kids? How can this be something they don't forget? So you incorporate the idea of fun. They never forget who you are if you had a good time with them."
In two years, Project Legos has worked at over 25 schools and community centers. The organization grew out of "Teen Talk." It was basically Rucker, then a high school senior meeting with middle schoolers about what worried them. The kids liked him, so more teachers invited him.
Rucker grew up in Chicago and moved to Saint Paul as a teenager. He says his grandmother and his pastor were part of the civil rights movement. They put it to him: What would he do for the cause?
"I guess I had the opportunity, as a young person, early on in life get involved in the thought process of why are we in the ghetto, and so I think that unfortunately that's not enough to empower many people who are from that area. But I think that it did for me."
As the group at Sheridan warms up, Rucker pulls out a package of green, yellow and red dots.
"I'm going to walk around and touch your forehead."
The kids protest, but Rucker keeps going.
"Yeah, I know, it sounds bad. When my finger moves away, there's going to be a dot on your forehead."
The students stand in a circle with their eyes closed. Rucker claps his hands. He appeals for silence.
"Get into your groups."
The students find their groups. But there's one kid, Lexis, who has a black dot, and no group. Rucker asks him to stand up on a chair.
"Now, everyone take a look at him. You can all see him. You all know he ain't got no group."
Rucker addresses Lexis directly.
"Everybody know you aint' got a group, man. You can't hide from that. We all know. Tell us all how you feel, right now."
Lexis says he doesn't know how he feels. But he looks defiant. Rucker asks the rest of the kids. One student says sad, another says lonely.
"How do you think he feels Angie?" Rucker asks
"I think he wants to hide how feels," she replies.
"Explain that a little more," Rucker says.
"Because Lexis pretends he's all tough," Angie says.
In addition to running Project Legos, Rucker is a full-time U of M student. He fundraises. He facilitates. Rucker wants students to think about the longer term implications of stereotypes and racism. Sometimes he shows students a photo of a gay high schooler who got beaten up by a wrestling team.
"Looking at that on the small scale of being children, and that's petty," Rucker says. "You beat this kid up. That's small that's small business, that's small stuff. But when they're 45 and they're a lawyer, when they're 50 and a doctor when they are a political figure those same practices and concepts are going to be used."
Rucker wants to break those habits. He says kids aren't asked to think about these issues in school. Rucker would like his program to be a graduation requirement. He'd like to work with entire school districts, setting up offices in schools that deal with bullying and racism.
"A lot of folks call me a social entrepreneur. That kind of thing. Really doing that or taking that initiative is really stressful. It's very stressful. And it's not as accepting. People don't accept it well."
Still, Rucker says for a cause this large, you need to sacrifice everything.
- Morning Edition, 12/27/2006, 8:55 a.m.