Teens in Virginia are learning how to combat bullying and prejudice in their communities. The multi-day “Project Inclusion” retreat provides tools and strategies to diffuse tension and build trust. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn More: Find details about Project Inclusion and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.
In a large meeting hall, teens are getting ready for “Culture and Belief” night. One group huddles near the stage, working out details for a Latino heritage skit.
Students: Start out with “Where are you all from?”... “I”m Mexican.” “I’m Salvadorian.”
Across the room, several others are brainstorming questions about LGBTQ history and pride. Their presentation inspired by the Ellen Show.
Adult Mentor: I need to practice my dance, I need your feedback. (Laughter)
The activity is part of the intensive, four day Project Inclusion retreat. Five to six times a year, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities partners with school districts to facilitate these gatherings. It gives teens and educators a safe space to talk about difficult issues like race, gender and sexual orientation. Jonathan Zur is the Center’s president.
Jonathan Zur: We think about Project Inclusion as being a process of awareness to action where students are able to really leave mobilized with knowledge and motivation and skills to make their schools more inclusive places without bullies, without pressures of gangs or violence, places where all students can feel connected and respected and valued.
Forty-five teens from Richmond public schools are here at the Jamestown 4-H Center. It’s right on the river with tall pines, fresh air and plenty of space to reflect.
Eighteen-year-old Asma Alomari thought the retreat might be sappy. Plus, she says she doesn’t like crowds. But the format helped everyone get to know each other quickly.
Alomari: Every group is different. My cabin mates are different from my group mates, my workshop mates are different from that, the people who I eat lunch are different from those, so I know everyone. And each time we have had these workshops, there was something personal. Even if it was after dinner and we were playing 21, we were talking about how we learned from our parents or we learned from our older siblings, similarities and things that were not so similar.
(Ambient: group chant)
While there is fun and laughter during the weekend, the retreat is intense. The day begins at 8 am and ends around 11 pm. An early workshop tackles the cycle of prejudice, from conditioning to verbal dehumanization to physical violence and institutional bias. Through discussions and role playing, they examine what it means to be a bystander, upstander and ally. They’re learning how to be a better peers, that it’s okay to be different, that shared experiences can be a source of strength. Seventeen-year-old Donovan Walls said when they arrived, a staff member said to expect an emotional rollercoaster.
Donovan Walls: That is an understatement about coming here.
Walls is a boxer, and gets his emotions out through the bags. But at the retreat, he’s learned that honest and respectful communication can be really effective.
Walls: You have to be open here and it's okay to be open because everybody’s so accepting and it just feels like you're comfortable here, you can even get comfortable being vulnerable.
Willie Dupree: It’s been a very eye-opening experience.
Christina Crawford: It's almost like you're taken out of the real world to help figure out how to fix the world.
Crawford: We are able to see the true side of our students and how much they've been through and it's amazing that they’ve been through so much and they're still here and they’re still fighting on. And then when they hear our side and how much we've been through and that we're all college graduates and we're all teachers or counselors or educators of some sort, that they now can see “Well just because this happened, that happened to miss so-and-so…” they know that they can come out of it as well.
Dupree: We've been able to see kids really open up, become vulnerable, take off their masks and get a little bit deeper understanding as to prejudice and a re-education as to what's really real versus just the things they see on TV. Things that have really emotionally opened them up and has given them power, I think to be able to go back to their schools and share among their classmates to become better individuals.
Taped to a wall in the meeting hall are large sheets of paper compiling what delegates are learning: how to stand up for someone; that it’s okay to meet new people, that honesty needs reflection, to lead and listen, to love oneself.
Rosa Giselle Lemus: It's really overwhelming because you know most people just think they don't fit in and it’s really hard to see this because they think that they’re going through it alone.
Sixteen-year-old Rosa Giselle Lemus came here to gain leadership skills. She wants to “be the change” in her school and community.
Lemus: Using this concept, we see how much we can relate and how much we just are more similar to each other and it’s just a feeling that no matter what, you know I am going through the same thing, I know your pain and I will be here for you.
An important part of Project Inclusion is inspiring teens to take action. In this space, they’re called delegates and they’re expected to figure out ways to use what they’ve learned back home, says Jonathan Zur.
Zur: We’ve seen students over the last decade come out of Project Inclusion and change traditions in their building to be more inclusive, traditions that might have only attracted one racial group to attend are now bringing in much more diverse groups.
Zur says students have gone back to their schools and developed initiatives to connect with English-language learners and students in special ed programs. At one school, students tracked where and when hurtful comments were being made and found it was more prevalent when no adults were around. They presented their findings at a faculty meeting and did role playing to show how teachers could effectively respond.
Zur: That has been a game changer for that school because they've been able to change where adults are placed throughout the building, teachers now have capacity to be able to interrupt more effectively during instructional time or down time within the building and so students come up with these really creative engagements.
Richmond’s delegates have been working on their own action plans, adapting things they’ve learned from Project Inclusion. A group at Armstrong High School organized Spirit Week to boost morale ahead of standardized tests. One day’s theme is “Mix Match” encouraging students to engage with someone they’ve never talked to before; another is “Twin Day,” a buddy system where students check in on each other. Small steps, but important ones as these students use their new tools to build inclusive spaces. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.