Readfield and Lewiston are separated by a half-hour car ride. But to students, they felt like worlds apart.

On the brink of their first visit together four years ago, the Lewiston students — diverse of race, religion and country of origin — feared their counterparts from Maranacook Community High School would be rich and racist. On the other side, the Maranacook students thought “urban” Lewiston would be drug-filled and dangerous.

Now these students, more than a dozen from each school, know their fears were unwarranted. Now they see each other as more than part of an unfamiliar group. They are individuals now — Mainers all — each with their own stories, passions, hopes and fears.

Each with something to give to the state they call home.

That’s the result of the pilot project of Operation Breaking Stereotypes. It started when a Maine-based mother-and-daughter team decided to bring together kids from here and New York City in hopes of erasing misconceptions between big-city and small-town students.

Soon, the duo realized they didn’t need to leave their home state to find those kind of misconceptions. So the project was launched, with Lewiston — enrollment 1,500 — and Maranacook — about 400 — as the trial case.

The students taking part in Operation Breaking Stereotypes, mostly freshmen when they started, have met once each quarter throughout their entire high school careers. Some have come and gone, but a core of students have completed all four years, starting with group projects and team-building games at first and leading to outside friendships — chatting online, meeting at mutual high school athletic events, even a series of sleepovers.

“I think the real power of the group is taking it beyond, ‘Well, everyone’s human’ and going to the point where, ‘Well, everyone’s a complex human,’ ” Claire Frohmberg, a Maranacook senior and participant, told Lindsay Tice of the Lewiston Sun Journal. “Like, when you see these people (in the group), you stop seeing, ‘Oh, that’s a black person.’ You start seeing, ‘That’s my partner Amino. Her mother survived a civil war and a drought in Somalia. They live in Maine now.’”

Operation Breaking Stereotypes finishes its pilot project at a time when that sort of understanding and perspective is sorely needed. Racist ideas have entered the political mainstream, and racists are emboldened. Acts of organized and casual hate are seemingly on the rise, including in Maine schools, where according to the Maine attorney general’s office, there are more reports of racism than at any point in the last 12 years.

The influx of immigrants and refugees to Maine has provided an opportunity to those who wish to separate and exploit us based on our differences. The same impulse nationally has found a voice in President Donald Trump.

More programs like Operation Breaking Stereotypes can help erase the suspicion that sometimes exist between Mainers with different backgrounds.

Mainers can’t let prejudice come between us. We can’t let our differences be more important than what makes us alike.

If we do, places like Readfield and Lewiston will certainly feel like worlds apart, to the detriment of all Mainers.

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