If we look inside a classroom (or as you see in the films Mean Girls or High School Musical), you see particular groups sitting on separate tables. We see a 'sporty' group, a 'nerdy' group, an 'international' group, most of these cliques keep to themselves. We are either part of it, or feel very excluded from all of them. Now let's take a look at life outside of school. The funny thing is, nothing has changed. We still have very closed communities. Communities of religion, race, sexual identity, social status etc... Hearing and seeing these communities can make us feel very distant and different from the people that belong to them. But then, how are we meant to know what we could share with them?
“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”
At Hawkeye, we celebrate diversity by creating an inclusive environment for different people. How do we stop people judging one another based on what we look like, what we say, what we do? Well that takes work, being open-minded is tough. That is one piece that makes it valuable; the struggle for progress and understanding. Progress isn't earned over night, but it is earned with experience and exposure. The process for growth for our campers flows from the commitment to change and understanding of the staff. Being the Head Counsellor, I knew I wanted to illustrate this to the staff through their own group development.
It starts with the hard work of Staff Orientation. Before the campers arrive, the staff go through a week of training. Some of the staff are new, some return from the previous year or previous years (like me). As expected, similar interactions take place between all of the staff as they try to know each other. In essence, it is 'small talk' and it doesn't break down those invisible barriers we create between ourselves. How do we even go about breaking down those barriers? Instead, we create our own assumptions. It's much easier to make assumptions rather than spending time getting to know each other. My aim was to get the staff to see beyond the surface, to be aware of their invisible barriers and to challenge their perceptions. Overall, how different or similar could we be to the other people in the room?
“Never judge someone
By the way he looks
Or a book by the way it's covered;
For inside those tattered pages,
There's a lot to be discovered”
A great way that highlights the diversity in a group, is the activity 'Cross the Line'. This activity allows participants to both acknowledge and address ways they are similar and unique from each other. This activity, throughout the week, brings to the surface other differences that the group will have not recognized. As the week progresses, the activity get tougher as racial, social, sexual, and cultural differences in our society are questioned. People's attitude, body language to the activity will change depending on the type of questions asked. People's interpretation of the question will be varied. It is really useful for the group to reflect on this during a debrief after each session of the activity. This activity was the main vehicle I used to challenge the staff's perceptions of each other, to break down barriers within the group and then to reinforce a sense of community.
On the first day of orientation, the whole of the staff group stood in front of me. There was a long rope in-between us (like the invisible barriers in our mind). For each statement I read out, I would ask the staff to step over the line if they agreed with the statement. For example, I asked the staff to step forward if they were a 'Belieber fan', or if they preferred 'dogs over cats'. Simple questions were important, I needed to first build a trusting, safe environment. After the activity, we had a quick debrief about what our expectations were when we first heard the question. Had these changed? I knew a lot of the staff (including myself) were surprised to see how many people agreed that they found Garrett (the Director) funny… (still confused by that one).
Each day, we would meet again to play 'Cross the Line'. The following day I asked questions about people's religious and political beliefs. Starting from identifying as a Democrat or as a Republican to disclosing if they had lost someone due to political/religious conflict. As these questions were more thought-provoking, the staff had further questions and comments to make in our debrief. All of the staff found it bizarre that no one had identified as a 'republican'. Had our staff previously assumed people's political beliefs? If so, based on what?
We also found a few members of staff admitted to displaying prejudice or discrimination towards other people's political beliefs or religious beliefs. This low number is quite surprising but I guess it depends on how you interpret the question. As we delved deeper into the topic, some people found that they would act differently to certain groups; such as people who weren't LGBTQ friendly. I met members of the ex Neo-Nazi community, when I lived in Germany. Would it be wrong if I felt differently towards them? Would you call that a form of discrimination/prejudice? Would you have crossed the line?
Each day the activity was tougher, and our debriefs got more interesting, people started sharing their stories. I could see our staff opening up. They felt more comfortable to ask questions about other people's choices. More and more people realized about the different ways they shared similar opinions with others in the room.
Each day, we continued to be surprised by each other's responses to the questions asked. The way people took a step over the line illustrated a certain feeling about the question. When I asked who didn't trust the police, I saw most of our American staff cross over, taking a confident stride over the line. Even with knowing about the ongoing campaign 'Black Lives Matter' and media reports, I was still shocked to know that our staff were personally affected by this. I was particularly horrified to learn that all of our black American staff have all faced a negative experience with the police.
Questions got more personal as the week went on. I asked the staff about their own body image. Again, I was surprised to see how many of our staff thought negatively about themselves. I don't know why I felt sad about this, I mean, I know I have thought negatively about the way I look and I'm not proud of that. But I guess I never thought that other staff felt the same way, especially those who I have known for the past 6 years.
Even when the topics dived into our own personal lives, it was amazing to see the staff fully committed to the activity. No matter where they were, or what they were doing, they would run down and be ready to play 'Cross the Line'. The staff were not only learning about others, they were also helping others to learn about themselves.
The curiosity was there, our staff wanted to know more about each other and even about themselves. Yet, they were willing to take the time to wait and learn.
By the end of the week, it was clear to see that everyone had been hurt in some way. Everyone had their own struggles, and their own story. But most importantly, we weren't alone.
“[There] was a time when a lot of people came to the door. The milkman. The iceman. The Fuller Brush man. Encyclopedia salesmen. There was a sense of interaction with the world that started right at your own front doorstep.”
Catherine Ryan Hyde, Walter's Purple Heart
For more information on Cross the Line or other versions of the game:
Freedom Writers, 'The Line Game' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYYf-mUmPqI
This blog written and provided by Ekta Gupta; Camp Hawkeye Head Counselor summer 2017. This was Ekta's fourth summer at Hawkeye and first as a member of the Leadership Team. She lives in London England when she is not traveling the world volunteer and working internationally. Ekta has extensive experience working with non-profit organizations b, NGO's, and teaching. She's pictured here to the left in the middle with her best friend from camp and an amazing CiT!