In the spirit of the Freedom Riders, 22 District-area African-American and Jewish high school students recently embarked on a journey to retrace the steps their ancestors took in their shared trek toward equality, justice and racial harmony.

The students, participants in Operation Understanding, D.C.’s initiative to create new social justice leaders, will this month visit battlegrounds of the civil rights movement and explore the diversity of the Black and Jewish communities.

The trip is the second phase of the annual, year-long program, which begins with a six-month classroom stint, in which students participate in workshops, meetings, lectures and activities all geared toward building leadership skills and developing an understanding of the African-American and Jewish histories.

“No one is born a tremendous leader,” said Rachael Feldman, executive director of OUDC. “Many of our students recognize Martin Luther King Jr. as an icon, but they don’t realize that he started out as a 25-year-old pastor.”

Students will learn more about King and his legacy at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., which is one of their 15 stops throughout the country on their journey.

Students also make stops in New York City; Greensboro and Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta and Clayton, Ga.; Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Ala.; and Philadelphia, Jackson, Sunflower, Greenwood and Greenville, Miss.

OUDC’s main goal is for students to put what they experience on the journey into context through the knowledge they’ve gained in the previous six months.

“They’ve learned all about slavery, reconstruction and the Holocaust,” said Feldman. “But during this journey, we really want the academic information to jump off the page and come to life for them.”

During their tour students will meet pillars of various movements for equality, past and present including: James Young, the recently-elected first African-American mayor of Philadelphia, Miss.; Joe Levin, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center; and Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who was with Martin Luther King Jr. during his last moments.

Upon returning from their journey, students will engage in OUDC’s speechmaking and facilitation retreat, where they’ll learn to speak publicly, to facilitate discussions, lead diversity workshops, and handle racist remarks effectively.

“This program has changed our students’ lives in terms of empowering them,” said Feldman. “Many of the figures they learn about and meet made an impact on the world when they were young, high-school students. This program has taught them not to sit back and rest on their laurels, but to get up, speak out, and take action.”

Program alum Monique McCants said upon her return last summer, “In learning about our own histories and social justice movements, I have become inspired to change society for the better. Imagine a world without discrimination, racial profiling or sexism? Is it even possible? I have high expectations for the members of my OUDC class, as well as for my generation. With a worthy cause and a passion, we truly can create change in our nation and the world, just as the youth of the past did.”