An Arizona summer camp is working hard to program children with anti-racist ideology, and the camp is run by an Arizona public school teacher. Anytown Leadership Camp "is a human relations organization dedicated to educating, embracing and empowering leaders to promote social change," they write on their website. They "envision a society that is strengthened by diversity, inclusion, respect and justice for all people."
In practice, the Phoenix-area camp for teens promotes anti-racism through racial division and propagandist rhetoric. As part of the camp practice, teens are separated according to race, gender, and sexual orientation to "talk about what ties them together."
A video from VICE News shows instructors in a scenic setting telling a line of campers to "step forward" if they have "primarily studied the culture" of their "ancestors" in elementary school.
"If your ancestors were forced to come to the United States not by choice, take a step backwards," they instruct, as campers of different skin colors move away from one another under the hot sun.
The VICE narrator says "this is what they call a privilege line. They ask a series of questions about how you may be privileged in life." He says that at the front of the privilege line are "mostly white males" and in the back are "mostly black women."
The "privilege line" was extrapolated from Peggy McIntosh's iconic 1989 essay on unpacking the "invisible knapsack," and often has questions on whether the participant has experienced racism first hand, has been called racial slurs, or was the first one in their family to go to college.
The VICE video shows campers singing a cringy camp song and talking about racism and privilege atop a mountain in Arizona. "There's no horseback riding," the narrator says, no swimming or fishing. Instead, "these young folks are here to lean into conversations most people try to stay away from. Conversations around race, diversity, and privilege."
The leadership camp is run by co-director Matt Case, who describes it as a "leadership camp." Case says the camp focuses on "all the isms," including racism, sexism, ableism, but that there's more to it than that. Case was a camper himself who attended in the 1990s and now slams the "color-blind approach" the camp had at the time. For Case, now it's all about white privilege.
That's the basis of questions for campers such as "How do you have a productive conversation?" The camp began in the 1950s under religious leaders from both Christianity and Judaism, but it's since become a place for social justice warriors in training. In fact, there are "dozens of Anytowns across America" that each operate on their own. The cost of the Arizona camp is $500 per week.
"There's identity that people see," says Gary Griggs, who heads up "mental health" in Anytown. The games and activities at Anytown are not for fun, but to engage in "dialogue" and are driven by social justice concerns about identity, oppression, and privilege.
One of the activities at Anytown is called a "fishbowl" where one group sits in the middle of a circle of other campers and are observed having a conversation. Case announces one of these sessions to assembled campers, saying "today we will be practicing deep listening." The narrator from VICE sits in the center of the circle with with a selection of black campers who all have their backs to the encompassing circle who watch while the whole event is filmed.
The campers in the circle discuss how they've heard over and over that they're "not black enough" or that as black people, they don't have a right to be heard. "The fishbowl," the narrator says, "is like being under the real time anthropological gaze of other folks."
"When it's not objectifying," he says, "it can work." One of these experiences is "culture night" which VICE says is like "identity show-and-tell." Campers who share the same identity get together and put on a little pageant of the stereotypical characteristics of their identities.
For example, the "Latinx" campers get together and tell the rest of the camp that what unites them in their identity are "celebrations, dance, and music." Native American students tell campers that Thanksgiving was in fact a "massacre."
The "European/white" campers say that "the first thing we noticed is that none of us really felt immediately connected to each other." Each of the white campers in the group ran down a list of things that are unpalatable about their European whiteness, like white privilege, which a camper said is "very dominant in our culture."
These white kids also touted their plan of "taking accountability" for the scourge of whiteness that they were saddled with "by making space for those that we have affected."
One camper spoke about watching "a bunch of skits about prejudice and how like it's a domino affect, and it starts with pre-conditioning and eventually leads to genocide." VICE wasn't allowed to film these skits, many of which were acted out by counselors and were semi-autobiographical.
Another camper, who had said in the "fishbowl" that she was tired of being called "not black enough," told campers after one of these skit session that she was "not going to put her life on display to educate" the others.
VICE questioned Case about the camps practices, saying that critics would claim that teen campers were being "indoctrinated," and would believe the camp's practices to be "divisive."
Case countered that critique, saying "these conversations don't divide, they actually unite because you get through the BS."
One camper said that this was the first time she'd had conversations like these. She said that in school, she'd "talked about race, but not to this level, where everyone is checked for the privileges that they have and that they don't."
Another camper said that though he didn't believe it was the intention to make kids feel ashamed, it "can appear that way."
Case believes that places like this are "making a difference," and that he's "making it better for the people that come after us."
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