Executive Director for the Inclusion Center.
So what is the purpose of Camp Anytown, in terms of student activism?
Well, this Anytown Camp is a place where you bring young people together to explore their youth leadership skills and take it to the place of learning an inclusive practice. So oftentimes they get a chance to maybe talk about what the word inclusion is, and they can even have a clinic on inclusion, but here they spend six days amongst diverse communities of different ages, different ethnic groups, different religions, different ideas. And how do you live together, how do you eat together, how do you lead together, how do you negotiate and share power, how do you really begin to break down the barriers that prevent you from being an inclusive leader?
You mentioned when we were chatting earlier that many of the people who grew up in the sixties, seventies, and even eighties -- a lot of us grew up with this paradigm of black and white, of extremes or polarities. How is that different now for kids? What's the paradigm in terms of social justice for kids these days?
Yeah. Yeah, it's changing, and it's changed over the last 19 years I've been doing this. And where we're at today as opposed to where we were, is there really was like, it's a black and white world. You're either this or you're that. You're a republican, you're a democrat. You're gay or you're straight. You're Catholic or you're non-Catholic. You know, whatever it might be. But the young people today live in a very multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-national, multi-gendered space. And because they live in this space, it changes the way in which they actually relate to their identities. And so it's not just about being African-American. It's about being African-American in the 21st Century, being African-American and being a female, being African-American, being a female, and being queer. And even amongst those identities, they're travelling in and out of them. And so they're experimenting with black identity vs. African-American identity vs. American identity. All of these different ideas and identities are transforming the way in which they see themselves, and the way in which they're engaging with others.
So what does that mean, as somebody who grew up in this polarized world, what do I need to know, to understand the challenges these kids are facing?
You know, I would begin by saying what we all need to know is how they're tackling solutions, like just exploring and creating solutions. And their solutions are looking a lot more fluid and crossing all kinds of different lines. So when they're thinking about words like being an ally, they're really going beyond, 'I'm going to ally for this very finite, specific group. I'm going to ally for a community that is broader than myself. I'm going to ally for a community that's going to change overnight.' And so today they're one thing, not the youth, but the communities they're identifying with, today they're one thing, and tomorrow, they're going to be something else. And I think we're seeing this actually around the entire world. I think if you look at the way in which like the environmental movement is happening, we're seeing, it's not about recycling, it's about reusing, it's about up-cycling, it's about recycling, it's about conserving. And it's multi-leveled. And now we're moving beyond that in the environmental movement to say it's not just about it being multi-leveled, but it's about how we look at race and the environment, how we look at social economics and the environment, how we look at what we're ingesting and the environment. And so young people are really catching on to the way that fluidity is occurring across these different movements, and when they're informing their solutions, they're informing this new body of research that really suggests that you can't look at things in a box or a vacuum anymore and you can't find it in a book twenty years ago. It's like, what happened on the Internet yesterday and how will that change tomorrow when I start Tweeting about it? And so that new fast-paced moment that young people are engaged in, suggests that we have to like, push ourselves out of old paradigms and be able to reach them. And they're looking for, 'Kilo, what's cutting edge? Do you really know about bullying? You use this weird word called bullying. Bullying doesn't make sense to me. What about sexting, cyber-bullying, and racial identity today? 'Cause that's what's happening for me today?'
And you use the term 'ally.' And that's not something I grew up with. What is an ally? Give me an example of what an ally is and what that changing dynamic of being an ally might look like.
So, you know, I think it's a lot like standing in a river for them, and when you stand in a river you can never stand in a river in the same place twice. So it's just constantly moving all the time. And being an ally for them, and I think actually being an ally for a lot of us, is not about having a friend, it's not about identifying with a specific person, it's about identifying with a whole group of humans that are moving towards making change. And when that change occurs, what I'm finding is they're immediately seeing the flaws in that change. Like, 'okay, we made that change, we're still behind, we need to move further. It wasn't about just having rights for this specific group, it was about seeing that they got their rights, but knowing that that was just the beginning of a larger movement towards helping us preserve deeper freedoms, deeper ideologies, deeper community.' And so they're just moving beyond, there's no such thing as placing a flag down and saying, 'we accomplished' and putting a plaque in front of it. It's like, 'okay, we got this done, what's next?' Because the ground is shifting underneath us so quickly these days.
So in the old days, activists fought for civil rights and social justice. The battle lines seemed clearer cut, at least in retrospect. Whereas for kids today, they’ve been telling me it's not that way. Describe that.
Part of what we're trying to describe is something that's moving all - it's constant. And part of the constantness of it is, for example, today they go and they're part of a GSA, and then they leave the GSA, and they're hearing on the news that people are losing their homes. And then they're leaving that space and they're hearing on the news that there are protests on the other side of the world. And so this constant, changing that's occurring in their environment, being informed in, kind of, the now, is really informing the way in which they create their own movement. They're just, you're - it's not uncommon to find young people who say, 'I identify with many movements that are happening right now. And I'm making connections between the intersectionality of those movements.' And at an earlier time, I think you might call that esoteric, where it seemed like it was so specialized, like, 'oh, there's someone who's working on gay homeless issues.' But today that seems more like the norm. That's, what seems more esoteric is when someone gets so stagnant and only stays within one specific movement.
And you said GSA, for those who don’t know, what is a GSA?
GSAs are Gay-Straight-Alliances.
Then, with the camp, you were doing some exercises, and we were down there doing the Privilege Exercise. Describe that to me. What does that exercise do for the kids?
So, the power by, the power of understanding our privilege is the power of understanding our relationship to power. And the more we understand our relationship to power the more we are able to dismantle the way power has separated us as communities. So when we understand where we are in relationship to other people, and the way society has granted specific access to us, informs us how we create an equitable space for more people. So if I explore the way my heterosexuality, my religious identities, my maleness, all of these places inform my social power. It allows me to create a practice that's more inclusive for those that don't get those powers by being born. And when I do that, I can think through deeper about an inclusive practice because I'm not normalizing my behavior and thinking everybody should follow along with what works for me. Instead I'm taking myself out of the equation and I'm thinking how is the power, relationship with power affecting those that I'm leading. Because I'm understanding how it affects me. So that's what the Privilege Exercise does, and it's across many different areas. It's about ableism, it's about faith, it's about race and ethnicity, it's about gender, it's about sex, it's about age and appearance, ability status, all of those are playing into the way we're trying to help young people, kind of go the direction they've been going, which is pushing into this new area of moving into multiple movements at once.
Do you think that that exercise is, because it's so physical and obvious, do you think it really drives home this sense that we're not all in the same place?
Yeah, I mean we're, I'm surprised, for example, how often when people begin working on inclusion, the word normal seems so normal to them. So it's just like, it's so invisible to use the word normal and to feel normal. That's, you know, part of the illusion of normality. And in an exercise like that, for someone who has deep privileges, meaning they have lots of power, that they use that word a lot, and they start thinking that everybody should follow what they think is the norm, and fit within this specific kind of cookie-cutter space, and that exercise lets them know how much more multiple identities we possess, and that we're not just one thing; as human beings, we're many things. And in different spaces, we occupy different kinds of privileges or non-privileges. So an activity like that lets them go to multi-dimensional space, and I really feel like that's where they want to be and they like to spend time there, even though it's very complex. And so we try to make it really simple, so they can take a complex issue like structural power, social economics, and break it down into very simplistic behaviors.
And then, we're going to go film them in their cultural identity groups - Describe that process of breaking them into groups and what's the purpose of that?
Kay. So in our cultural, Culture Night, at camp, it is an opportunity for young people to identify themselves. So what we don't do, is we don't say, 'oh, you look African-American to me, you should be in the African-American group.' Because you're so surprised on how many kids are in multi-racial, complex identity spaces. So you could have a young child who is African-American but they might have two Asian parents, and that's the cultural identity they really have. And they want to talk about being in a community that has labeled them African-American, but yet when they go home, their practice is deeply Asian. And so we allow people to move across these groups to the one that they feel comfortable with and so they can do some deep identity work. And the idea is to learn, inside of that group, to break down stereotypes of what they have about their own cultural group. And you're surprised on how many people have stereotypes about their own quote-unquote cultural groups. So they're dialoguing about that. And then they're creating skits that help inform what their cultural identity is today. Not what it was a hundred years ago, necessarily, although that does inform them, we really are pushing them to say, 'how do you take that past, place it in the context of today, and explain to a community what is your cultural identity?' And it is just amazing, and it's mind-blowing to me. Take the American Indian students, the American Indian students, we have American Indian students who are indigenous, living in the reservation, spend many, much time in the reservation, know their native languages, and then you have a very urban, American Indian. And they may not know their languages, they may not have spent time in those spaces, they may have like a grandmother or grandfather that has, and you put them in the same cultural group together, and there's some struggle there. And from the outside it looks like, 'oh, they're American Indians, they're all going to get along.' But they don't. They have to do some inter-group relation work. And they do that work in candid, confidential space, and then what comes out on the other end is this wonderful, very pluralistic, non-conformist, cultural workshops that they're showing everybody else. And the big part is, can the other groups watch that and accept that - not tolerate it, but can they go to a place of acceptance, to allow their colleagues and cohorts to have that same regard that they would hope for in their culture groups. And I have to tell you, they do such a great job. And you know who has a hard time with this? Some of the adults that we bring in. We open it up that night to the - the community can come in. Sometimes they're not ready to watch young people regard young people with all this new identity work. They're like, you know, they, some leave a little upset. Because they want to place them back into old boxes of how they were taught and what they think was right. And they're saying, 'Kilo, why didn't you teach it to them this way?' or 'how about I bring you up a cultural expert to teach my child this direction?' And I have to reply to people all the time, and sometimes staff members, 'we're not here to change children. We're here to allow them to grow and explore in their own ways. But if we're here to change them, then we're doing the wrong kind of work.' You can do that in your homes, if that's what you want, but here, they get to explore all they would like about who they are in their identities. And it just - sometimes I'm like, 'you fit in that group?' I have my own stuff. I'm like, 'You really fit in that group?' And they're like, 'Yeah.' I'm like, 'Okay. Here we go. Let's see what happens.'
And what's the one group that struggles the most with cultural identity?
Well, you know, there is, you can't name a group. Some of our staff would like to, but over my time, I would say there's no such thing as one group that struggles. But I can tell you some things that happen. We have a rich refugee population here from Africa that comes to the, that comes to Utah. And when there are refugee students here and they want to join an African-American or black cultural group, which happens, those two groups can really bonk heads, you know? They just aren't sure how it all fits together. And there's lots of self-doubt and wonder about each other. The other group is the White American group. You know, I do plenty of workshops in this community, and if I ask the question, 'what does it mean to be white?' The white community is like, 'I'm not positive what that means, Kilo.' And that's a wonderful journey to begin. But it's a struggle, because it hasn't been deeply explored. So they go through it. But the gay students that are here, who are working on their cultural identity, they, this is the first time where they know that they've had, they've been carrying around rainbow flags or having different symbols that represent their identity. But they have never had a chance to ask what they mean. And so they're kind of a little shy, and they're like, 'okay, I really want to know what the colors of the rainbow mean.' And that's the safe place where they get to ask if, and aren't worried that someone's going to push back and say, 'you don't know what they mean? C'mon!' So this is, that's the different kinds of struggles that are going on - and the other thing is, you have staff members that are from a different generation, and they're struggling too, with allowing young people to have their own leadership and identity to do that work. So they are holding back and then pushing too much, and then holding back. And it's all part of the process. Because all of that shapes culture in the bigger sense, anyhow. And so we just keep it positive, keep it safe, and it always comes together.
What's the most exciting part of this whole experience for you?
You know, last night we were working on sexism, and the young men finally got to a point where they wanted to talk about what it meant to be a young man, like what does it mean to have a male identity. What does that actually mean? And how has it affected me? And we had such a great conversation. But then there are these, you know, there are older men, there are mid-age men, and there are these young men, and we're having it together, and what's not present there is any kind of physical presence about part of, part of my masculinity is about how tough I am. So when you can have that kind of conversation, it transforms the work. So I love that. I love watching young people break through this work, and like go to a place - that has deep regard for humans. And when I can get them there, I don't care if they have to get back on the bus to go home, if they're in that space, I'm like, we are holding off. If they're having that moment, I will hold back society for them so they can continue that until they're ready to get back in there. And so that's, that's the magic for me, in this kind of work.
And then, it seems that a lot of this is about training other leaders, about really empowering other facilitators, creating leaders. Describe that process, about, you know, it's really about passing it on in a way, I guess.
Yeah, I mean, to have a movement, it has to be sustainable. And I, don't get me wrong, I love the young people, I love the new people that are coming, and they're, you know, they're starting their work. But I have to tell you where I get really excited. I get excited to see the young people that are coming back to work with the young people. And there is something about that level of dedication, where you're like, you're a peer, you're doing this work, and you now want to practice, and it's all your choice. So now you're making choice, on that you want to be involved in this work, and I find it very important to give them space to train and learn and ask questions, and we learn together. And at that very moment, they're my peers. I don't have anything great to teach them. What I feel like I can do is give them the regard I would give anybody else, and create a space where we can bounce ideas off each other. And they learn how to become facilitators. They learn how to become allies, they learn about different cultures, and faith groups, and more importantly, they're challenging their own prejudices. And they're doing it on their own. And we're kind of challenging each other. But with deep regard for each other. And so I think that generation of building community leaders is so valuable, and I, in my time, I've watched kids come who have been really tough or have been hard to reach or weren't sure if they wanted to do this work, and they've moved from that place to coming back as a volunteer, and they were okay and they came back the next year and they were a little better, whatever that means, and then eventually they've moved on to become police officers, moved on to become great mothers and fathers, teachers, legislators, all kinds of great community leaders.
It's not all pretty though, I mean, you know we were talking with Allie about the fact that there's pushback for kids who are pushing in the community for equality. You know, that it's not necessarily something where it's like, 'all right, I'm going to now become a community activist and everything's going to be fine.' Describe Allie’s situation and that sort of pushback or the challenges that young people face.
Well, I guess the definition of a community activist is being able to find the ways in which a system is inequitable, and then working to help the system expand itself, create deeper resources and access for the community. But as you do that, you face traditional values that have been there for long periods of time. And as you explore that, it's seen as a challenge. And in that place of challenge comes deep conflict, and that conflict has, comes out, historically, in many ways. One of the examples of that, that's happening more contemporary, in a contemporary way, is when we're seeing young people blogging about what is racism, what is sexism, and having other young people replying to that blog in hateful language. So it's not uncommon that we are finding the place where the movement belongs, which is the place of inequities, and finding that as we speak out further and farther, that we are inviting resistance. Because in the resistance, in that space of friction, is where change occurs. And so we see that, we understand that, and we're seeing it in blogs, in hate, coming back to us, in hate mail coming to us, to our volunteers. And so we have found that we continue to go back to the most fundamental part of the Inclusion Center. And that is that we have to teach every human being to have regard for every human being, even if we don't agree with them. And to reach into that level of compassion is really difficult. And I love the Dalai Lama's quote in his book, 'The Ethnics for the New Millennium,' and he says, 'you can't practice compassion with the people that you love. You only practice compassion with those that you're having a hard time with.' And it's in that space that I think we need to train and work with young allies to harvest that area in them. And so, yes, we're inviting the friction, but at the same time, we're pushing our young people to have the compassion to regard that friction and those people that are doing that as human beings that deserve as much dignity as the rest of us.
Okay, anyone else have a question? Mo Allam I just had one, it's just, kind of tied into what you were saying earlier, what I saw a lot early on in school is what young people are exposed to, on tests, is like they ask you what your race is, and it's like really limited things, like Caucasian, Asian-American, African-American. My background doesn't fit that, and I think a lot of other students - so I was wondering if you could speak to that, as like, kind of like how that is kind of symbolic for what society views -
So, where we came from, and where do we need to go? Mo Allam Exactly.
Kay, yeah, that's - you know what? Our president is multi-racial, and we want to, we want to put President Obama into the category of African-American. But honestly, he's multi-racial. He's multi-national, you know, he's multi-religious. He lived in Muslim spaces, identifies himself as Christian, and all those places are defining part of our president, and we're trying to confine him into these very narrow boxes. And young people are looking at having to have racial markers and identify on tests as specific, in specific groups, so we can study that, so we know if there's inequities happening for specific groups. But they're pushing back, because they're saying, 'You know, Kilo, I can't put African-American. Why can't I click four of these?' Or 'Why isn't there a category for other?' And a great example of that is looking at transgender. So it says, what's your gender? And it says, male or female. First of all, male or female is your genitalia, not your gender. But as you look deeper into your gender you find out that people, human beings, have a variance of how they understand their gender. And so transgender is one of those, and they're not finding the box to place themselves in. And if you can't find the box to fit yourself in, it suggests that society's at a point where it needs to grow. And in order to do that, we have to create validation and accreditation for those new identities, and as you do that, it causes more conflict. But in the conflict, causes the growth that we're looking for. And so this relationship we have between constraints and expansion is part and necessary for a movement to continue and to define itself.