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Healdsburg Junior High School Vice Principal Erika McGuire, wife of state Sen. Mike McGuire, is usually on the other side of an interview with students. But in early May, she faced a panel of five students questioning her.

They wanted to know whether she had ever been bullied, what inspired her to become a teacher, what hardships she had overcome in her life, who had the most influence on her life and what were her favorite sports teams, among other even more personal questions. The interview was part of a Neighborhood Listening Project by the Santa Rosa-based program Listening for a Change. It was supported by a grant from the Healdsburg Education Foundation.

In its fifth year at the junior high school, the program was extended to ninth-graders this year. In it, the students learn how to take an oral history from someone and how to hone active listening skills. They do this through six hours of classroom training before they begin to conduct interviews.

From the program “students learn that people face challenges and overcome them,” said its executive director, Phyllis Rosenfield. “We focus on (the interview subjects’) resiliency and how well they deal with challenges. It’s an affirmative process.”

Listening for a Change grew out of a Sonoma State University project in 1988 that helped students understand the histories of Holocaust survivors and Japanese interred in camps during World War II. Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High School was the first school to offer the program in 1997.

The students interviewing their vice principal at Healdsburg Junior High are part of Lillian Fonseca’s AVID class. The acronym stands for “Advancement Via Individual Determination.” It is an elective course that helps students learn good study habits, organization, presentation and interviewing. The students must be interviewed themselves every year and maintain a 2.0 grade point average to participate.

“These students are the leaders of the school,” said Fonseca, who has 30 years of teaching experience in Healdsburg schools. “Ninety-eight percent of the AVID students make it into four-year colleges, and most of them are in accelerated classes.”

The program counteracts the tendency to categorize diverse peoples as “others,” fostering cross-cultural understanding and sometimes helping to dispel bullying based on a lack of understanding and respect for personal and cultural differences. Program leaders say that students learn that each person has a story and gain insights into diversity. The interviews offer an entry point for social justice studies as well.

This year, the schools participating in the program included the two in Healdsburg, as well as all the 10th-graders at Roseland University Prep and three classes at Cloverdale High.

Each hourlong interview is usually synthesized and condensed to five to seven minutes by the program’s video editor, Evan Johnson. But the videos at Healdsburg High School were recorded and edited by the school’s media class.

The interviews are available on the Internet in both English and Spanish. They also are shared on public access television and via “mobile interactive museums,” which are kiosks available at rotating locations. There is a kiosk currently at the Cloverdale History Center, for instance.

What did Vice Principal McGuire share with her interviewers besides answers to their questions? She told the eighth-graders, “Don’t be nervous about going into high school. Once you’re in high school, it matters. You can’t earn Ds, because they’ll be factored into your overall grade point average.”

She also advised the students to go to school board and city council meetings and to write letters to community newspaper editors to make their voices heard.

As the program leaders like to say, Listening for a Change builds connections, one story at a time.

To learn more about the organization and its projects, or to see the videos, visit listeningforachange.org.

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