It had seemed like a good idea at the time when 14-year-old Jonah Wexler’s parents and older sister encouraged him to apply for Bridge Builders the summer before his 9th grade year at Memphis University School. He jumped at the chance. But by the Sunday evening before his summer leadership conference, Jonah could be found in the family’s East Memphis home compiling a pro-con list extolling the virtues of playing hooky.
“Under pros there was absolutely nothing listed,” recalls his mother, Molly Wexler. “Under cons there was a list of about 10 items, ranging from having to get up too early to the fact that it was going to be too much like school. The most telling was the last item: I don’t know anyone, and no one will like me.”
Five days later, Jonah was one of six students selected by his peers to address more than 100 youth and their families at the induction ceremony that marks the end of each summer conference and the beginning of students’ year-long commitment to the Bridge Builders COLLABORATE program.
“Which was especially gratifying, because here was the kid who didn’t even want to go, and obviously he’d totally bought into the program,” Molly says. “After the first day, he’d said, ‘It was a long day, but I’ll go back tomorrow…’ and then the next day he was like, ‘I really like it,’ and then by the third day it was, ‘I really, really like it!’”
Now 15, Jonah’s wrapping up his first year as a Bridge Builder and not only plans to continue next year, but hopes to serve as a student ambassador for the program at MUS.
“He feels like it’s important that more kids do BRIDGES, and it’s given him the confidence to have discussions at school,” Molly says. “It’s definitely not his nature to want to be out there pushing something, but I think he knows how important it is.”
Founded in 1988 by Rebecca Webb Wilson, Bridge Builders originally brought together 40 students from the public Northside High School and the private Briarcrest with a vision of breaking down racial, socioeconomic and cultural barriers and forging ties between future leaders of the community.
Today the program has expanded to include more than 6,000 youth annually, representing 141 schools and 53 zip codes.
“I grew up in Memphis,” says Molly, who serves as board president of Indie Memphis and previously worked as director of development for Memphis Jewish Federation. “In the 1980s, there was such a need to bring kids from all different areas of the city together to meet each other, to dialog, to understand each other’s’ backgrounds. And 30 years later, the need is still there, if not greater than ever.”
Indeed, most young Memphians’ day-to-day interactions and relationships are still as racially, socioeconomically, or religiously segregated as in their parents’ time. But in an era particularly marked by senseless acts of violence, an uptick in hate crimes, and political rhetoric more divisive and derogatory than ever before, many feel those already deep divides expanding into gaping chasms. For families like the Wexlers, BRIDGES’ longstanding commitment to inclusivity, empathy, and intersectionality feels more vital than ever.
“We have a ton of diversity in Memphis now, which is amazing,” says Molly, who’s married to Grizzlies President of Business Operations Jason Wexler. “But it just goes to show that, with the influx of all the different types of people here, to have a safe space where kids can meet each other and know they’re going to be heard, they’re going to be respected, they’re going to make friends, there’s not going to be judgment — that’s really important.”
BRIDGES recruits with a goal of reflecting the true demographics of the Greater Memphis area, including students of all races, ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic levels. Youth are broken into small, diverse groups to tackle a curriculum inclusive of five standards of experiential education: significance (having meaning and relevance for participants), challenge (providing new experiences and encouraging “out-of-the-box” thinking), support (emphasizing teamwork to develop trust and healthy risk-taking), satisfaction (building on successes to create even greater successes), and fun (capitalizing on the inherent joy of learning while laughing).
That means every activity, from the rock wall to zip-lining to trust falls, is a part of a larger lesson; youth explore perspectives of other students unlike themselves, challenge their own perceptions, and learn to embrace conflicts in healthy, constructive, and mature ways.
“There are plenty of kids at his school who think like he does,” Molly says of Jonah, who’s a member of the MUS soccer team, a recreational basketball league, and the Jewish youth group BBYO, “but there are other kids who don’t, and he doesn’t always feel comfortable there.”
And that’s OK. It’s good, even. Because discomfort means we’re pushing outside our comfort zone, which is the only way we grow. One of the most common takeaways Bridge Builders echoes is not just a discovery of surprising things they have in common with students from different backgrounds, but a newfound respect for and deep appreciation of their differences.
Those are complex lessons most adults struggle with throughout college and beyond. But luckily, thousands of Memphis youth are getting a head start on honing these skills every year, Jonah Wexler among them.
“It taught me that any two people, no matter their race, background, sexual orientation, or any difference from one another at all, can become friends with each other, lead with each other, and make the world a better place together,” he told that Friday night induction crowd of hundreds. “That, to me, is why I’m so glad I came to Bridge Builders.”
Apply Now For Bridge Builders
Bridge Builders COLLABORATE is BRIDGES’ legacy year-long youth leadership program. Current 6th-11th graders are eligible to apply for the 2017-2018 school year now. Applications close April 13.
The program starts with a week-long summer conference, followed by continued leadership training, community action events, and electives throughout the school year. Designed to help students explore new passions and deepen their understanding of civic leadership, these activities range from technology mentoring sessions with seniors to ballet performances to workshops on sexual assault and harassment prevention to blight-fighting community actions.
Program fees are set on a sliding scale based on financial need.
Visit bridgesusa.org/collaborate to learn more and apply!