Q&A: A peacemaker who takes it outside

Name: Lara Mendel
Age: 47
City: Oakland
Position: Executive director, the Mosaic Project, www.mosaicproject.org


Tell me about your nonprofit organization.

Lara Mendel: The Mosaic Project works with people of all ages, from kindergartners to adults in the workplace, providing them with skills to live in the kind of diverse, inclusive and just communities they envision.

Our primary program is an outdoor school, where we bring kids from three very different schools and mix them up and camp in Napa for four nights and five days. The curriculum addresses differences and building community; recognizing stereotyping and discrimination; nonviolent communication, teamwork and cooperation; and appreciation for the self and others.

Lara Mendel

What is the best age to reach kids before they develop prejudices?

You can’t start too early, but we do it for fourth- and fifth-graders because that age is the youngest we can get them away from home for a week.

I strongly believe in residential education, taking them out of their usual setting and putting them in a gorgeous place. At this age, they are becoming aware that other people think differently than they do and have valid perspectives, so it’s the perfect time to begin working on empathy.


What inspired it?

A few different things. I grew up in Los Angeles and was part of the first magnet school there when I was 9. Rather than forced busing, people volunteered to send their kids to a diverse school. In high school I had the experience of attending an environmental science program in Yosemite that showed me the power of experiential education, how much life-changing learning could happen outside.

What sealed the deal was when I was a student at Stanford and went with a Hillel group to visit Germany. All of us had lost family in the Holocaust, and we stayed with German students and met with ex-Nazis. I already understood how prejudice can lead to violence, war and genocide, but there I got it on a gut level, and that really solidified a huge commitment to do this work.

I also attended a summer camp at 15 that dealt with racism, sexism and homophobia in a diverse setting. While I had dealt with these issues in Hebrew school, my mind was blown. I saw violence break out and watched how things were handled, and thought, “When I am old enough, I will do this work.”

How long has the program been around, and how is it funded?

I founded the Mosaic Project in 2000, and our pilot sessions were in the summer of 2001. Thirty-six percent of our funding comes from program fees. We have a sliding scale, and the rest comes from grants and individual donations.

Obviously your Jewish identity plays a role in the choices you’ve made.

Yes, it’s a huge part. Not that Jewish identity is solely about the Holocaust, but one of my grandparents escaped from Russia in a hay wagon, and my other grandparents got out of Germany just in time, while most of their family members did not. I grew up always knowing about the Holocaust and understanding what can happen when people hate those who are different. I saw prejudice and racism and discrimination in my own communities. Going to Germany as a college student was instrumental in my learning that we can’t combat anti-Semitism if we’re not combatting all forms of prejudice. They’re all interrelated.

I want the Jewish world to claim me and the Mosaic Project. It was founded by a Jewish person out of Jewish values, but the way I choose to work is in a diverse community. It doesn’t make me less committed to my Judaism, but I believe if we’re going to make change, then we need people of all different backgrounds working together to create a microcosm of the world we want to see, to demonstrate peace is possible and to inspire action.

You have a black belt in the martial art Kajukenbo and have been practicing for 20 years. What is it, exactly?

It’s a Hawaiian form that’s grounded in self-defense. Martial arts has absolutely informed my work. When we’re spending a lot of time contemplating peace, it’s important to think about violence as well. I was a self-defense teacher before I did kung fu, and it’s core to what we teach, being assertive rather than aggressive. A lot of people confuse those.

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Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."