SAMOHI — A popular program promoting dialogue between racial groups will return to Santa Monica High School after a year-long hiatus, and, for the first time, with direct school district funding.

The program, called Racial Harmony, is a two-day retreat that forces a group of approximately 50 students to confront ingrained stereotypes and undiscussed issues of ethnicity.

Trained students run the groups, which tackle weighty topics like institutionalized racism, the history of ethnic groups and how racism becomes part of the culture of a place.

Racial Harmony has been held sporadically depending on the availability of grant funding, but it was revisited in 2011 as district officials attempted to grapple with the fallout from a racial incident at Samohi.

Officials acceded to the wishes of parent groups and organizations like the NAACP to do a thorough review of the school curriculum and add relevant material to educate students about different cultures and ethnicities.

Members of the Board of Education also requested that the district bring back Racial Harmony, and that it be given a secure funding source.

Where that will come from is still unclear, said Superintendent Sandra Lyon.

“We don’t know how we’re going to pay for it,” she said. “But we have to figure out how to fund it.”

It’s a bittersweet announcement for Rebecca Hardt, a one-time student and district employee who brought the program to Samohi over a decade ago when she was a junior.

She was one of six people hired as student outreach specialists, and she coordinated Racial Harmony during her time there.

But when the district had to fire employees in the wake of epic budget cuts, Hardt lost her job and Racial Harmony lost its leader.

“I have the curriculum, the passion and the know-how,” Hardt said.

Hardt and her classmate Allegra Hill brought the program after attending a retreat held by the National Council for Community and Justice, then called the National Council for Christians and Jews.

At the time, racial tensions were obvious on campus, manifesting at lunch time where kids ate in segregated social groups, Hardt said.

The two girls crafted a modified version of an activity they had participated in at the camp, and presented it to then-Principal Sylvia Rousseau.

“Dr. Rousseau was very passionate about values at our school, so she was all for supporting us,” Hardt recalled.

The first Racial Harmony involved 100 students, 10 teacher moderators and student leaders trained in mediation.

The students broke out into groups by self-identified ethnicity for some sessions and then brought back to the larger group for others.

Dr. Kimberly Nao, an outreach specialist in the H House at Samohi, was Hardt’s English teacher and became one of the chaperones for the event.

The program attracts students with a passion to stop racism, but even they learn a great deal about the opinions they hold, Nao said.

“It’s one thing to say that you sympathize, and another thing to sit and listen for two days and have all of the ugliness come out,” Nao said.

White students look at their role in racism, and are forced to ask themselves if they have been a perpetrator of insults against friends. Students of color ask what their role is, and if they are not guilty of perpetuating stereotypes as well.

It’s important for young people to be exposed to frank conversation about race so that they can develop a vocabulary to express the things they experience, Nao said.

“They’re speaking their experience into reality,” Nao said, “letting people know how this feels.”

Administrators plan to bring the program back sometime in the second semester, and Hardt has expressed interest in coming back as a consultant. She plans to codify it and incorporate the program in her private practice to export to other schools.

“There’s a niche for this program to be brought to districts all over the state,” Hardt said. “Samohi would be a beautiful place to begin.”

Reintroducing the program to Samohi would be valuable, but represents the beginning of the process to attack a larger problem, said Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre.

“Racial Harmony is important. It’s important for young people to reach greater awareness and understanding,” de la Torre said. “But racial justice is also important.”

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