Back in 77 or so, I volunteered as an advisor to a human relations youth
camp. The kids were all 16, about 120 of them, and they were highly
selected. We had them for a week. One night the kids had the responsibility
you know, I almost tear up thinking about those camps. There are so many
beautiful stories about kids learning to understand and appreciate each
other. I think I’ll just put it on my blog. It’s the ultimate in
multiculturalism and developing ethnic identity, something that has so much
dirt kicked on it.
But I should at least tell the story that relates to James’ post.
So a bunch of Chicano kids got together and put on their skit.
(Interestingly, one of them was a Spaniard, so gorgeous even the adult staff
ladies gulped when they saw him – but he had been radicalized by experiences
of discrimination in New England, so he joined with the Chicano kids). Now
these were valedictorian-type kids and had been interacting and bunking with
the other kids all week.
But that night, they stepped out onto our little stage with kids sitting on
the floor all around. When these kids, boys and girls, stepped out all
decked out in the cholo outfits, bandanas, the slouch James describes, the
whole crowd skittered backwards like so many little spiders. It shows the
power of a gangster identity, even though everyone knew that none of these
kids were that – no lo eran. The power of image cannot be exaggerated.
On my first turn at the camp, in 76, that culture night was very rigid, with only certain groups represented: Jewish, Chinese, Mexican-American, African-American, Native American, and that was about it. Also, a kid had to go with his ethnic group no matter what his interests were.
So I suggested that we look at the White kids. That was well received but there was some puzzlement as to just what this would turn out to be. Well, I began polling kids and I got everything – Greek kids who could dance folk dances, Norwegian kids who could play an instrument and sing songs in Norwegian, Armenian kids who could display religious customs, Italian kids who wanted to put on a skit, and so on. One girl absolutely denied any ethnic identity, but when she saw what the other kids were doing she admitted she came from an Austrian-Croatian family and actually spoke Croatian! She had denied any ethnicity because her family split along ethnic lines and fought bitterly at every family gathering.
It was very successful and became a part of the program from then on. The next couple of years, my wife and I also worked to allow anyone to join with any group, not necessarily one of their own culture. So in 1978, during the Bakke controversy where those against affirmative action were championing him, one White boy was very verbal in his opposition to affirmative action and attracted a lot of hostility from the Black kids. He decided to join the Black group for culture night (such was the power of this camp) and HE, HE was the one who delivered MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech! And was it powerful. We had to get out mops to mop up the tears. He did not change his views on affirmative action… that wasn’t the point. But he sure came to see the issue from a different angle and the Black kids saw someone they had written off as a new friend.
Then one day, a famous day in Arizona, at this same camp in 1978, we had one of our religious speakers which we had every evening. This day it was the LDS or Mormon speaker. I happened to have dealt with him in my work… he was a judge, and so I was very interested in how he would handle the explosive issue that arose in every camp every year: the LDS teaching that Blacks could not be in the priesthood which every Mormon male became part of (they also believed in a kind of separate level in heaven for Blacks).
So, indeed, the question came up and I was disappointed to hear Judge Mangum say, “I’ll answer that in a few minutes.” And he looked at his watch! The session ended and as I was about to ask him about his dodge as we walked down the hill to the mess hall, we saw the line of students waiting to eat twisting and heaving as kids jumped around in great excitement. As we got closer, we saw many of them were crying but in a joyful way.
What the judge had been waiting for was the church’s announcement that a revelation had come down ending any discrimination based on color. Very dramatic.
The camp is called Anytown and I know California has it, too. It still is very active in AZ and started in 1958 – my wife went to one of the first ones as a student where a Native American girl told her, “I’ll teach you my language if you teach me yours.” My wife is African-American.