In an attempt to bridge cultural barriers and erase racist stereotyping, assemblyman Michael Benjamin and the German Consulate General Horst Freitag are sponsoring a unique program bringing together African-American youth from the Bronx and exchange students from Germany.
Assemblyman Benjamin, his wife and chief of staff Kennedy Benjamin, and German Counsel Freitag spearheaded the program after a video surfaced on the Internet over a year ago showing a German army officer in a training session with troops using stereotypes and making racist statements against African-Americans in the Bronx.
The Bronx students spent two weeks in a Berlin suburb with German sponsors, and their stay was the subject of a film by German filmmaker Tobias Gohr.
From Sunday, September 7 to Thursday, September 18, students of Oranienburg’s F.F. Runge Gymnasium School stayed with the families of students from The Eagle Academy for Young Men at 250 E. 164 Street and The Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice at 244 E.163 Street, becoming “Bronxites.” Their teacher, Gabi Rohde, accompanied them.
The group of Bronx and German students, accompanied by their teachers and elected officials, had a closing event at the Bronx School For Law and Justice.
“Hopefully, the program will get our young people to think about careers in diplomacy,” Benjamin noted. “I have heard from some of the kids when they came back from Germany, that many of the German students were surprised if that they were not into hip-hop culture. There is no doubt this program is breaking down stereotypes.”
On their last day in New York, the German and African-American students got a tour of city hall, where they meet Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as New York City Comptroller William Thompson Jr.
“When we went across from the street from City Hall to Comptroller Thompson’s office, we saw Asian, Black, and Latinos is important positions playing an active role in government,” Benjamin said.
The German Counsel General Dr. Horst Freitag noted that is was really the staff and the teachers of the schools involved who deserve much of the credit.
“It is important to recognize that this is not a top-down project,” Freitag explained. While the program is in its second year, and only had 12 German and 12 Bronx African-American students, teachers at Eagle Academy said the whole school has gotten behind the project, and there has been a ripple effect among the student body, with students taking initiative to learn what they can do to help make the German exchange program a success.
“Christine and I became very good friends and it was great to have her spend time with me in the Bronx,” noted student Darrell Noel, about his experience with his German peer. “She and the others got to see that the Bronx is not really a ghetto as it is portrayed.”