Exhibition helps children explore identity, racism

WASHINGTON — When Fey Olaniyan tuned into an interactive video at "The Kids Bridge," a new exhibit about racism at the Smithsonian Institution, she could relate. In the video, a young girl named Tanisha must decide how to respond when two girls on a school bus insult her with a racial slur.

"I understand [her] problems. That has happened to me, too," said Fey, a 12-year-old student at Eastern Intermediate School in Silver Spring, after touring the exhibition last week.


For kids of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, there is something to relate to in "The Kids Bridge."

On display at the Smithsonian's Experimental Gallery, it is the traveling version of a landmark exhibit developed by the Children's Museum of Boston to prepare youngsters to live in a world that is a rainbow of ethnic and racial diversity. "The Kids Bridge" is a hands-on way of teaching children ages 8 to 12 about the value of every human life, the advantages of multiculturalism and the corrosive effects of prejudice and discrimination.


The exhibit begins by engaging each individual who comes through the door. "What makes you special?" the show asks. In more subtle, participatory ways, it also shows how the traits that make one special can lead to an appreciation of what is similar and equally special in someone else.

"That was our challenge," said Joanne Rizzi, director of the Children's Museum's community outreach program who developed the exhibition with Aylette Jenness, an author of children's books. The exhibit "is not about studying other cultures. It'sabout you, yourself in the world, how you relate to other cultures," Ms. Rizzi said as she watched children participate boisterously in the exhibit's numerous components.

In "The Kids Bridge," visitors are first asked to participate in activities that focus on them. The "All About You" station challenges students to describe themselves by filling out a work sheet. At the "What's in Your Head" station, visitors trace a silhouette of a companion and complete it with a list of the friend's interests and dreams.

Exhibit participants can take a break from the mind exercises by playing Italian, Chinese and Ethiopian hopscotch. There is also a "wheel of fortune," which visitors spin to discover that they share common concerns and ambitions with people all over the world.

Most of "The Kids Bridge" was adapted from the permanent exhibition in Boston, which opened two years ago and has been seen by more than a million visitors. But a group of adult and teen volunteers from the Washington area designed and executed several localized exhibit components, including neighborhood dioramas and pushcarts full of food, jewelry, musical instruments, toys, folk art and other elements that reflect the region's ethnic diversity.

In two cozy sound booths, the exhibit exposes visitors to lullabies and play songs from around the world. Children can also participate in an interactive video, which playfully introduces phrases in Spanish, Cambodian, Haitian-Creole, Cantonese Chinese and English.

A "talk back" board asks visitors to list the languages they speak. Within minutes of the exhibit's opening last week, students had posted Farsi, Korean, Hebrew, Cambodian, Portuguese, Norwegian, Spanish, English and "Southern," among other languages, to the magnetic bulletin board.

Pamela Bailey, a mother accompanying her 11-year-old son on the Eastern Intermediate School trip to "The Kids Bridge," was pleased with its message. "I think it's very unique and great," she said. "Most children don't interact enough with children of different nationalities. It's what I always speak to my son about. I will be coming back on my own."


As Ms. Rizzi and Ms. Jenness designed the exhibition, they collaborated with community members who contributed ideas and opinions about what "The Kids Bridge" should include. From the beginning, the two women believed the issue of racism could not be excluded from the exhibit.

They stood firm, despite the protests of some, including a parent who argued that his daughter was exposed daily to prejudice and should not have to confront it when she visited Boston's Children's Museum. "We could not espouse the virtues of living in a multicultural society without talking about racism," the co-developers say in an introduction to the exhibit.

In straightforward accounts, the "Getting Across to Each Other" video tackles racism. It features Tanisha, as well as a Vietnamese girl and a Puerto Rican boy, who each recount an incident in which they were the victim of discrimination.

By pushing a button, visitors listen as three children relate a number of scenarios in which they react to racial insults in different ways. For example, Tanisha, in turn, expresses anger, embarrassment, fear,hurt and confusion. Viewers can also see how Tanisha had several options for dealing with the incident. In one, she took matters into her own hands by escalating the war of words; in another, she told the girls that name-calling is wrong.

The video -- which also includes the reactions and suggestions of the three characters' friends -- encourages children to talk openly about racism, and to choose constructively among options for dealing with it.

Wayne White, 12, also a student at Eastern, enjoyed the $H interactive video. "It tells kids what happens to people [when they are called names] and what to do," he said.


Wayne, as well, saw himself in the video as it presented choices for handling prejudice. If he were the victim of a slur, "I wouldn't call them a name back. I'd just walk away. I'm not a violent person," he said.

To recognize that others would also walk away was a comfort to Wayne. "That means I'm not the only weird person," he said.

After a five-month stay at the Smithsonian, "The Kids Bridge" will travel to cities across the country, including Indianapolis; Miami; Houston; Bridgeport, Conn.; Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Philadelphia; and Stockton, Calif., through mid-1996 as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.


What: A hands-on, interactive exhibition for children that explores identity and racism.

Where: The Smithsonian Institution Experimental Gallery in the Arts and Industries Building. 900 Jefferson Drive S.W., Washington.


When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Christmas. Through February.

Admission: Free.

Call: (202) 357-2700.

In conjunction with "The Kids Bridge," two prejudice reductio workshops for youth will be held at the Experimental Gallery. "Valuing Yourself and Others: Our Differences Are a Plus Not a Minus," will take place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

"Reducing Racism: Exploring Our Thoughts and Feeling Through Role Play and Movement" will take place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 14. Admission to the workshops is free. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (202) 357-4445.