It isn’t so strange to imagine a bunch of Maine high school students taking a class trip to New York City, but it might sound strange to hear that the trip will mean attending school with and living in the homes of a bunch of inner city teenagers. And it might seem strange to see all those city teens arriving in Maine to do the same thing here with their Maine cohorts. But that’s what hundreds of students have done, thanks to Connie Carter. Encouraging people to think outside the box of their expectations is exactly what Connie has been working on over the last 13 years. After getting to know Connie, I concluded that she has, in fact, been working on breaking stereotypes for most of her life.
Connie founded Operation Breaking Stereotypes with her daughter, Cami, in 2001, when Connie was teaching in the Orono schools and Cami was teaching in the Bronx in New York City. Since then, Connie has overseen cross-cultural exchanges for more than 2,000 young people in several school districts in Maine and New York, working to open boundaries for them and for the communities. Unlike international exchange programs, Operation Breaking Stereotypes focuses on navigating differences that exist in our own country — differences in race, urban versus rural environments and socio-economic status. Stereotypes abound in every direction.
“The urban-rural piece is huge,” said Connie. Before you even begin to address race, she said, you have to address fears about living with a strange family in an unknown environment. Some city children were as terrified of wild animals and woods as the Maine children were terrified of their imagined dangers of city streets. And most of the children had never even been in the home of someone racially different from themselves.
The fears go deep, and they are not just in the students. In the first year of Operation Breaking Stereotypes, Connie was able to get approval for the trip to New York but not for a home stay. The school district considered it “too dangerous.” Conversely, one of the New York parents was reluctant to invite Maine students to her home in the city because she said she feared those rural white kids might “shoot up her house like Columbine.”
All those fears and assumptions are part of what Operation Breaking Stereotypes works to dispel. During the first year of a four-year program that begins with high school freshmen, students explore identity, race and culture. Then they “meet” their exchange companion by computer at the end of the year. In the second year, the city children come to Maine for a home stay. In the third year, the Maine kids go to New York, and in the fourth year, they all take a trip together somewhere else.
Operation Breaking Stereotypes is a huge undertaking, and funding is limited. Connie recruits the participant schools and teachers largely on her own, and she admits that she has considered quitting.
“But then I see the discoveries these kids make,” she said.
Before Connie founded Operation Breaking Stereotypes, she worked with the visually impaired, in special education, then in the Orono schools as a service learning coordinator. I first thought that facilitating cross-cultural/cross-racial exchanges had no connection to her previous work, but after talking with Connie, it became clear that seeing beyond differences had infused her whole career. No matter one’s challenge, Connie focuses on the ability to adapt and overcome obstacles.
“I always look at people based on potential, not deficit,” she said.
A few years ago, Connie helped to produce a documentary film about the Operation Breaking Stereotypes exchange called “Welcome to My World.” I wish every educator would use the film and accompanying study guide. Even without direct exposure to an exchange, the film and guide would facilitate important lessons. Through the very real, unfiltered experience of the Maine and New York students in the film, questions arise about identity, stereotypes, race, family, place and cultural differences. It challenges students to ask questions of themselves and grow beyond their own limitations.
It is Connie’s nature to recognize the essence of people as individuals, whatever their circumstances or challenges might be. It also helps that she is not shy.
“I guess I’ve always been curious and maybe too stupid not to ask questions,” she said, laughing.
Thank goodness Connie continues to ask, and she and her students continue to learn.
To order copies of the film and download a free version of the study guide, visit welcometomyworldmovie.com/dvd.html.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.