At Anytown, teens tackle racism, biases

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The clincher is the $1 bill.

"Anybody who wants this dollar can come and get it," says the group facilitator, holding the money up.

With some 50 high school students - black, Latino, Asian, white, and mixed race - standing in a large conference room, a white girl at the front quickly steps forward and claims the money.

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This is a key symbolic event at the 15th annual summer gathering of Anytown New England, an unusual, week-long diversity, education, and leadership program for teens sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ).

On the second day, the students - standing shoulder to shoulder - were peppered with a list of 30 questions designed to separate them according to privileges or discrimination they may have experienced because of race, income or social position.

"If your family had to move because they couldn't afford the rent, take one step back," says the questioner. "If your family owns their own house, one step forward... If your family has ever been on a vacation out of the country, step forward....."

When the questions end, most of the white students are at the front. A scattering of whites, blacks, and Asians are in the middle, and at the back, almost all are blacks, Latinos, and Asians.

The effects of racism

The dollar bill, when offered, is easily taken by a white girl at the front, symbolizing white privilege and access, another "have" ahead of the "have nots."

What follows is a two-hour discussion that at times is heated and emotional, with equal expressions of guilt, denial, and confusion. A handful of students cry, many realizing for the first time the impact of individual and institutional racism on them and their families. Many reach out across racial lines and seek constructive connections. Others are brooding.

Tania Asnes, at the front, tells the group as a Jewish student, "I feel kind of bad, but it's not like I did anything, like I should feel I've been walking around on a red carpet, but I looked back and I saw Savoun (Vath) sitting back there. We were talking today and we have a lot in common, and I thought, wait a minute; why am I up here and she's back there?"

Later, as the discussion proceeds Tania quietly moves to the back, and puts her arm around Savoun who is crying, and remembering her family's struggles in fleeing Cambodia and arriving in the US with little money.

Nathalie Keng, co-director says, "Our goal is to develop leaders who care about diversity and social justice. We are not trying to make the world diverse: it is diverse, and here we come to grips with the biases and prejudices we all have."

In a time of much publicized hate crimes, Anytown dares go where many adults refuse to tread. "This program is about becoming a servant leader," says Anytown co-director Beau Basset, "and the chance to meet like this is not available to most adults, not even the chance to talk like this."

William Marcelin, a black participant, says, "It was rough at first. Some of them were thinking, OK, I'm privileged, but I'm willing to help, willing to tell other people we need to change. And the people at the back were saying, I don't have as much as they do, but they are good people, but I don't know about the people in the outside world."

For those who have been through Anytown here, or at 45 other US cities, the step forward or backward exercise is one of many during a week.

Through a combination of exercises and an informal but focused agenda, Anytown becomes something of an ideal "town." By discussing issues in a setting with many races, students see through stereotypes and racism. "We help them to know the difference between someone who feels bad about racism, and a leader who speaks out against it," says Ms. Keng.

Other workshops and exercises, cover topics such as religion and spirituality, gender and sexism, and disabilities.

"We don't want these kids to open up and not be able to channel what they learn into a positive direction," says Ricardo Rosa, Outreach Coordinator for NCCJ. "We make a point to tell them that they are a fountain of meaning, and we discuss with them at the end many ways to take steps to get involved in their schools and communities."

NCCJ welcomes graduates of Anytown into the local Youth Council, a year round leadership development program that sponsors two youth conferences, and "Into the Circle," a school-based program that focuses on inclusion among teens.

Some students return to Anytowns because of the transforming experience. "You can't really describe the experience so that it doesn't sound like a commercial," says Ernesto Montano-Arroyo, an assistant counselor who went though Anytown last summer. "It changes your life."

During a discussion about spirituality, a black teen from the inner city says, "This is the first time I've heard a discussion about religion when nobody is shouting, gets hit in the mouth, or dies."

Anytown isn't all work. There are opportunities to hang out and talk in dorms or at the swimming pool on the grounds of the Rolling Ridge Conference Center.

Learning compassion

Jonathan Cole, a black participant, sums up his reaction on the third day of Anytown by saying, "I find myself being more compassionate here, looking at people as human beings, not just people with ethnic backgrounds. The hardest thing will be to go back [home], and meet people and start with them as a blank page."

Students going into the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades are nominated to attend Anytown by high school teachers, counselors, youth leaders or anyone working with youths. Many sponsors pay the $250 fee for students to attend. Across the nation some 40,000 students have experienced Anytown since it began in l950.

"A cognitive action is happening here," says Keng, "and when we talk about action we often talk about bricks and mortar, or how many kids you are tutoring, how many homeless people did you shelter? But the nature of our work is building respect and understanding. It's a developmental process, and builds a strong core for motivation, and to apply the learning."

Julia Young, who says she attended to learn if she was prejudiced or not, says "I didn't know that much about white privilege," she says," because I come from a white suburban town where it's never discussed. I knew about racism academically, but actually being face to face with blacks and Asians was a completely different atmosphere. I really loved it, and I want to start a diversity club at school and will join the Youth Council. And I'm going to e-mail everybody and see how they are doing."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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