Editor’s note: This story is part of a week-long series of special stories focusing on the search for unity here in Southeast Texas.
Finding unity often begins with identifying the problems that divide us.
This is a look at possible solutions through the eyes of teenagers. 12News anchor Erika Harris visited a classroom at Odom Academy in Beaumont where the conversation has already started.
“How do you think we all fit in together? Do you think most of us are divided or are we unified?" Eighth grade teacher Candice Aldrich asked her class during a discussion of the classic novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
The controversial novel was published in 1960 but the story is set in the 1930s—two time periods in America’s segregated history. The story deals with the serious issue of race and division.
Aldrich told her class that the themes in the novel are still relevant in today’s world. It’s almost 2019—a new day in America. Do these idealistic, bright 13 year olds believe this country and the people in their communities are mostly divided or united?
"I think we are divided because there is nothing pulling us all together right,” Odom eighth grader Heena Karani said.
"I really believe that people of different races, some of them are united and believe people are equal. But there are others who think one race is superior, and that shouldn't be happening,” classmate Chase Bridgeman said.
These students know what divides us, but they also shared thoughts on how we can achieve unity.
"I think all of us think we have a solution but it is not that easy,” Nakita Jayaraj said. "When we try to come together. When we think about together as a whole we are better.
Other students shared their ideas.
"Communication that's important to like get to understand each other because we are all different in a way right, so I think when you start understanding each other that's how we prosper,” Jayaraj said.
"Unity is going to be the only way that we actually are going to get anything major done in this country or anywhere,” Karani said.
"When you have a day just to go around in your community and meet people and see we are just the same,” Bridgeman said.
Does this optimism change as kids get older? 12News also spoke with a group of Kelly High School seniors to get their perspective.
"I feel like a lot of people in our community just kinda of close off. They are just like nope, I don't want to hear anything about it. Nope it's not for me,” Kelly senior Isabel Meadows said. “I'm not doing anything like that, they are not my people.”
"Some people are really stubborn in what they believe,” Zaid Jiwani said.
The topic of social media and its role in creating division came up in the discussion.
"Everybody is kind of like saying their opinions and like they are free to hate on each other because they are hiding behind the phone screen,” Franya Blanton said.
"Nobody really has their own opinion anymore, and it's all based on social media,” Jessica Reid said. “Like whatever social media says, we believe it."
These teens believe the older people get, the more complicated coming together is.
"Sometimes parents don't understand we are going in a certain direction and the world is changing. And I feel like the younger generation has picked that up,” Meadows said.
“More accepting,” Blanton added.
The teens said their generation is more open minded.
"We really respect each other's opinion. Everybody I talk to... I have a lot of friends not the same opinion politically as me. Even though we argue, after that we still friends we still talk to each other,” Anthony Pigno said. “It's just we have to learn to put aside our differences and respect another person's opinion."
These students identified the issues that divide us and then discussed their view of the future.
"I believe unity can be achieved through diversity and compromise,” Jiwani said.
"I'm optimistic about the future. I think it's through unity will we progress and become better than what we are,” Pigno said.
"I feel like if we all look inside and see the common good in each other we can overcome it,” Blanton said.
"I believe unity is something we need to achieve right now,” Kelvin Elgar said.
"I believe unity is something we can work on if we treat each other equally,” Reid added.
"I think the way we achieve unity is through a common goal of hope, peace, and love,” Meadows said.
“What can we do if we think unity is really important,” Aldrich asked her eighth graders.
It’s a question each person has to honestly ask. What are we doing to tear down the walls of division?
Although there are only four years separating the eighth graders and the high school seniors, their optimism seems to grow stronger with each passing year. These young people had very good insight into what divides us.
The Kelly students told 12News that unfortunately it seems to take disasters like Harvey to bring people together because then we all have one common enemy.