Can We All Get Along?

Building interethnic trust and understanding
among high school students

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 28
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

Anytown camps were started in 1957 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now called the National Conference) to encourage self- and mutual respect among people of diverse cultures, races and religions. The Anytown approach mixes discussion of ethnic and racial identity and stereotyping, sex roles, family issues, sexuality, and prejudice, with role-playing and experiential exercises. The Anytown workshops reach 2,200 teenagers each year.

In this story, high school English teacher Lori Punske, relates her experiences at an Anytown camp in Alabama.

Inside the school bus, a self-imposed apartheid had taken place. Blacks were seated in the center, whites in front and behind. When the bus arrived at its destination on Lookout Mountain in Alabama, the students did it again – choosing their bunk partners by race. Every room was quickly all-white or all-black.

The human relations retreat for students of Cobb County, Georgia’s, Pebblebrook High School was off to an unsettling start. When the students saw how they had segregated themselves, they awkwardly regrouped.

Student Nicole Wilkinson admitted: "None of us knows how to get along. We don’t know enough about each other to really understand each other." The weekend retreat, called Anytown, was designed to help the students build trust and understanding. Developed by the National Conference, Anytown is a nationally-heralded workshop for young people focused on interethnic and interpersonal relations.

At Pebblebrook, like many American schools, the minority student population is growing rapidly. "We’re not waiting for a problem," said counselor Tina Pegram. "We’re trying to help children build bridges." Pegram selected this group of 34 students from peer nominations. There were 20 whites, 13 African-Americans, one Hispanic.

Anytown "is where you discuss problems that you know the general public dismisses, and where you are treated as an equal, as an adult," explained 11th-grader and National Conference staffer Jay Bailey. "What we want to do here is to instill confidence in these kids so they can step up and take leadership roles."

Once back at Pebblebrook, the kids from Anytown help promote diversity through student assemblies, activities, and monthly meetings with administrators and teachers.

At Anytown, two activities dominate the days: talking and listening. Students move from mixed pairs to small groups to larger ones and finally to a nightly mass meeting. Two weeks after the Rodney King verdict and the LA riots, there was a lot to talk about. Topics ranged from police and prejudice to family and friends. During one group session, students puzzled over the self-segregation in classrooms and the school’s cafeteria. In another, they criticized the media’s portrayal of black people. A debate on affirmative action brewed in one of the groups. Sexual stereotypes were discussed in painfully honest terms in another session.

As the students began to talk, distances diminished. Several exercises brought even greater interaction. Students held hands to form human knots, then worked to untie themselves without loosening hands. They practiced "trust falls" where they allowed the group to catch them, and "trust walks" where they closed their eyes and allowed themselves to be led.

The evenings ended with group circles where anyone spoke. On the last night of Anytown, one boy told the group: "I was a racist. I mean, I couldn’t get along with blacks or nothing. At school, most of these people I would have never talked to. … I would have just turned around and walked by.

"Now I’ve learned that you can’t just judge a person by his color. I mean it’s what’s inside that sort of counts."

For more information on Anytown and similar workshops and camps, contact The National Conference; 71 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1100; New York, NY 10003; (212) 206-0006. This article was reprinted with permission from the Fall 1992 issue of Teaching Tolerance.

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