Kansas City didn’t used to shy away from the tough topics.
A program called Anytown drilled into the loaded beliefs that people harbor about race, class, gender, faith — a range of explosive subjects. It explored the sort of attitudes that people rarely voice, unless they’re sure the listener is likely in agreement.
Emotions like the exasperation of a white person who feels their very presence will always be equated with privilege, or worse, racism. Or how tough it can be for a gay or lesbian teenager to come out to conservative parents. Latinos and Asians frustrated with being left out of conversations about race, vaguely tucked in as an addendum to a black/white framework — unless immigration is raised; then it’s pile-on time. And African-Americans feeling they are expected to “get over it” anytime they raise questions of bias.
Anytown trained high school students on leadership. It was emotional, highly structured and effective.
And it’s poised for a comeback. Former Anytown staffer Felicia Medellin has jump-started the effort, forming a committee that has met for about a year. As part of that momentum, a reunion for former Anytown students and staff will be 6 p.m. Friday at Donnelly College’s community event space.
A $40,000 goal has been set to hold a small camp in July. A local university has tentatively signed on as the host.
For about a decade, I helped lead Anytown camps, mostly as half of a co-director team. By far, it was the most important volunteerism of my life. Nothing compares in scope of importance, in lasting impact.
Anytown began locally in 1992, formed from a national model that grew out of the the struggles of the civil rights era. The National Conference for Community and Justice, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews, initially led many of the camps nationwide and in the Kansas City area.
Anytown was a camp only in the sense that the approximately 40 to 70 students were together 24/7 . They stayed overnight, surrounded by a trained staff of adults and college-aged counselors.
The beauty of the experience came from the blending of students who were recruited with an eye toward achieving a wide range of diversity — male and female, all races and ethnicities, private and public schools, suburban, urban and rural, straight and gay, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, atheist, those from the upper-middle class, those with college-educated parents and those whose families were far less economically secure.
It demanded area teenagers to be deeply contemplative about their opinions. It guided them to understand influences involved with how they formed viewpoints and helped them assess if their thoughts could uphold to factual scrutiny.
Before the program folded about five years ago, nearly 8,000 teenagers attended either the camps or a more compact, weekend version called Unitown. Many of the youths were from the metro area, but camps were also done in Iowa and Nebraska.
It’s impossible to overstate the depth of self-reflection and interaction.
Invariably, themes emerged. Views were often expressed by suburban teenagers that they feared going — or were banned by parents from going — anywhere east of the Country Club Plaza. But through the camp, they were living alongside children from those neighborhoods and schools. They learned from one another. The young person who at first glared with detachment, so unwilling to participate, would ultimately step up with startling insights.
Clergy and police officers were often among the staff, their jobs unknown to the students until later in the week. Dynamic assumption busting would ensue.
The programming changed as needed. Initially, it didn’t address gay and lesbian students. But then more children began to self-identify as being part of the LGBT community. I remain deeply moved by the struggle and strength of the first transgender child to attend.
At that age, young people are often rewarded for popularity with peers, wit, looks and ability to charm adults. But those aren’t attributes of leadership. Leadership often came from the far quieter children who summoned the strength to lead others when one of the simulated exercises pressed emotions.
A 30-minute exercise to illustrate poverty might take an additional two hours to discuss afterward as a group. And the students often continued talking openly and honestly late into the night.
We never opened emotional wounds or raised complicated topics that the staff didn’t also take the time to heal and answer. Tears were common at the end; the students wouldn’t want the camp to dissolve. Many said they’d never been listened to, or challenged that intently.
Beyond the many anecdotal testimonials, a study was also completed showing that Anytown achieved longitudinal outcomes, changing how people approached complicated issues, formed opinions and saw their lives in conjunction with others.
Anytown was life-changing for thousands of Kansas Citians. It’s time for more teenagers to have the opportunity.