The summer of my junior year in college I was asked to be part of a two-week, inner-city program connected with our school, just outside of Chicago. Growing up in a racially mixed Southern community and having several black friendships at home, I thought I knew a lot about racial dynamics. I had been exposed to blatant racism, sympathetic to the situation of those victimized, and accepted by the black athletes who comprised our sports teams. What “expertise” I had accumulated was shattered by my 2-week Chicago experience.
Twelve high school teenagers (six male, six female) from the inner-city were sent to our school to experience a pre-college educational experience (part of a program sponsored by a local bank). They were to “get a taste” of college life. My responsibilities included taking the students to meals, providing experiences for them after school, and housing the six males in my apartment in the evenings (a female college student housed the females across the hall from us). I couldn’t wait to foster these new relationships!
Reality set in on the first night. As I worked to establish common ground with the guys, they were completely disinterested. The first night was extremely awkward. Across the hall, the girls completely turned on our female leader. Fortunately, within a couple of days, we had all broken through the surface, and a two-way respect began to develop. The students shared their first impressions of us, we shared our first impressions of them, and we all began to spend late nights getting to know each other’s stories (very eye opening). Three experiences in particular changed my life, and they are worth sharing:
- All fourteen of us were having fun one night playing games in the apartment. In college housing, it is normal to get loud, typical for the neighbors to call the police, and normal for police to politely visit the premises and request that the party quiet down a bit. So, when police arrived at my door that night, I was not surprised. However, I was shocked when they asked to come into the apartment, quizzed us about having alcohol or drugs, and searched the beds and closets. This probably would not have happened with a group of white kids. These skeptical types of inquiries occurred to us throughout the week (in the gym, at waterparks, and in restaurants).
- We were eating lunch in the school cafeteria one afternoon and the young people asked to be excused. We excused them, but asked them to wait for us (leaders) in the hallway just outside the room. As we finished our meal and left to meet the kids in the hallway, a worker from our school was yelling at our youth. I asked what the problem was and she stated that these “colored kids” were hanging out in the hallway and refused to leave. While stifling my anger and outrage, I eased the situation by explaining to her that they were simply waiting. She apologized, but the damage was done. The young people saw my controlled anger and defense of their behavior, and they became much more willing to “open up” when we got home.
- During a discussion one night, our female leader offered her strong conviction on being pro-life. The girls really turned on her. The debate mellowed as each of the girls shared their personal experiences. While we were not persuaded to the pro-choice position, we were able to gain a completely new understanding of the complexity of the issue.
At the end of week two, there were lots of hugs and tears as we said our goodbyes. I had only received a small glimpse of the world from their eyes, but it was enough to truly challenge me in my approach to the whole issue of race. The next fall semester, I enrolled in a racism class and became involved in a weekly inner-city program. These experiences, my upbringing, and insights I gained from the racism class have each contributed to this creative strategy for combatting racism in our culture today.
My plan includes raising the awareness of young people toward the reality of racism, pushing them into situations that force them to experience what it feels like to be a minority, and challenging them to commit to a plan that would result in networking with youth of different races. This plan can be implemented through a church or secular youth program. This particular strategy is for facilitating interaction and understanding between blacks and whites. It may be modified for any sets of racial groups.
This begins with at least a month of illustrations and storytelling-all dealing with race. Experiences such as those shared above might lead to discussion or thought. Video clips addressing racism could be checked out from a local library and used as well. Newspaper articles, magazine stories, and music are additional, strong sources. A teacher or youth leader from the community-preferably black-could visit and give his or her perspective on race issues. The goal is to get young people talking. As race discussions begin, it is absolutely essential for the leaders to support each other and encourage kids to express their thoughts. Accept kids even when they speak potentially racist remarks, naïve statements, and deeply ingrained attitudes. As an awareness of racial issues develops, move to the next phase.
Once young people understand that there are race issues, the next important step is to provide experiences for them to learn how other people feel in certain situations. There is tremendous value in finding a black church that would be willing for your group to join them (in worship and Sunday school) once a month for a semester of a school year. If appropriate, invite a corresponding group from the predominantly black church to visit your church regularly, too. Although this will initially be awkward, each group would gradually begin to understand the other’s styles. One realistic goal for your group might be to eventually attend a retreat or camp that the black church attends or organizes. It is probably more comfortable and typical for your group to invite the predominantly black group to one of your camps, but it would be of much greater value for your youth group to experience being a minority. Additionally, there is a great opportunity for deeper relationships between blacks and whites to emerge. Church, organization, and parent support is essential. Also, all leaders, white and black, must work together, gradually and patiently providing new experiences for the youth. If a bond develops, there is boundless potential for the groups. This effort, whether fully successful or not, leads to a third phase.
Challenge young people to commit to a plan of networking. Networking would exceed the once-a-month visits. Networking begins with the leadership of both groups. Leaders should meet with one another for socializing and planning. Monthly or biweekly meetings could be a valuable time for bonding. The more the leaders of the two groups interact, the greater potential for stronger interaction between the young people. Once again, it is vital to “sell” your sponsoring organization on your ideas, to gain their permission and support (be prepared for reluctance). At this point, consider revisiting the racial awareness forum. This time, expand the range of discussion topics. Words can always facilitate action-cooperation in service projects, efforts to meet needs, and willingness to share resources. While this may seem like an incredibly idealistic undertaking, there is incredible value in willingly accepting risks, being open and flexible, and determining to pick up the pieces and restart if it all fails.
© 2017 CYS