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Project Legos builds unity

Kyle Rucker’s dream of unity and acceptance has been at work since 2004.

What started as a dream for University student Kyle Rucker when he was a sophomore at St. Paul’s Arlington High School has become a reality that is constantly developing.

Since founding the organization in 2004, Rucker has been the executive director for Project Legos ­” a nonprofit organization that focuses on exploring social justice issues by working with youth in sixth through 12th grades.

Since then, Rucker has worked with about 17 schools and community groups, including St. Paul Washington Middle School and nonprofit organization Trinidad Quest, bringing a message of understanding and respect. The group also has extended that message to the corporate level, facilitating diversity training for some companies.

“We are a youth outreach program that talks about issues starting on an adult level,” said Rucker, a youth studies junior.

The program tackles issues such as racism, sexual harassment, teasing and homophobia through engaging youths in demand-based one- or three-day workshops, he said.

Rucker, sitting in Arlington High School’s great hall during the group’s second annual fundraiser Saturday, said his dream was borne of the things he saw while in high school.

When in the cafeteria, he saw students of various ethnic backgrounds passively segregating themselves at the lunch table. Rucker questioned why no one attempted to understand the different cultures around them.

He said that while he can’t teach anyone how to deal with racial issues, he can facilitate a discussion and people can become enlightened.

“To see social change you have to start with young people,” he said.

While Rucker might seem like the de facto leader of the group and is spoken of highly by his peers, he said there is no hierarchy within the group and that it operates through collective thought.

Carly Syfko, Project Legos board member and public relations junior, spoke admirably about Rucker’s adherence to “building trust and honesty within people.”

Syfko, like others who have become part of the organization, joined at the beginning because of Rucker’s vision, she said.

Michael Jackson, Project Legos assistant director and marketing junior, said the group’s “passion for the youth” is what attracted members and keeps them going.

Cell biology junior Joshua Garubanda said when being a facilitator, he has to be able to think on his feet in order to engage his young, diverse audience.

“Working with youth can be either empowering or frustrating, because they are so truthful,” Garubanda said. “The key with working with youth is having them be able to identify with you and realize where you are coming from.”

Jackson said the facilitators actually learn more from the students they talk to than the students might think, as they continually refine their presentations.

Nathan Whittaker, General College community program specialist, said Rucker invited him to be on the board to look over the curriculum.

Whittaker, who is co-founder of the General College Truth Movement, said he found his calling to be an activist at age 13 in a small program similar to Project Legos, and has since been a community activist and social justice educator for more than 15 years.

Knowing the empowerment that comes with being a servant toward others, Whittaker said, Project Legos’ board and staff members “have their heart in the right place.”

Saturday’s event, titled “Leaving Footprints: Celebrating Community,” included special performances by musician Ari Herstand and teen poet Kelsey Vanert.

The event was a way to bring together representatives from other community organizations, teachers and professors who are interested in the group’s work, and members of the community who do similar work in the social justice field, Garubanda said.

Although the turnout was not what they anticipated, Whittaker said it’s important for people to keep the long-term goal of their organization in mind, even when people seem to not care about their vision.

“We are still growing into our pants and developing into a strong nonprofit organization,” Garubanda said.

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