We have an exercise at Camp Everytown, called "The Privilege Line". If you have ever been to Camp Everytown, this would probably have been one of the most memorable exercises by anyone's standard.
We conduct this exercise to help students understand the advantages of privilege and the disparity that privilege brings, and for them to learn how privilege affects their current circumstances. In the process, they will learn to build empathy with others who are more or less privileged.
First of all, here is how the exercise works:
All students stretch out to form a straight line while holding hands with the people next to them. Everyone is required to remain absolute silent during the exercise. The facilitator will proceed to ask dozens of questions, and the students will either subsequently take a small step backward or forward.
Questions include: "If you have ever been called names, been picked on, or been physically attacked because people assume you are gay or lesbian, take a step back if your answer is 'yes'." Or "If your parents had to have more than one job to survive, take a small step back."
As you can imagine, soon enough the person next to you may have to let go of your hand and be 10 feet way ahead of you or behind you. Normally at the end of the game, the kids in the back are emotionally or shamefully disturbed, or they will be feeling unfair. Vice versa, the kids who are in the front of formation, leading the crowd, will be secretively turning their heads to look behind them to see their friends from school way behind them.
Back in October during the beginning of the 2016-2017 Camp season, this happened at the end of The Privilege Line exercise.
One of the questions was: "If when you walk down the street people often avoid eye-contact with you, clutch their valuables, or cross to the other side as they pass."
This may not surprise you (unfortunately and sadly): An African-American teenager from a less privileged Silicon Valley high school ended up towards the end of the crowd. He tried to suppress his sorrow and fight back tears when he went on to describe how this has happened to him many, many times on the streets.
How is this happening in one of the most advanced and diverse towns on the face of the earth?
Why is this handsome and naive-looking young man still in high school receiving this kind of treatment?
Why do people still consciously act a certain way even though they know another person's feeling will be deeply hurt and traumatized forever?
This is why we do what we do.
We can't wait for Camp Everytown to begin again in February. Every child, rich or poor, white or black, gay or straight, needs this social-emotional learning opportunity to open their eyes to experiences they wouldn't have otherwise learned if it weren't for Camp. It brings together faculty-identified high school leaders (both positive and negative influencers, representing every main social group on campus), along with teachers and staff, in a face-to-face exploration of the differences and commonalities that exist between and among them. Through this intense immersion, participants develop empathy and learn to acknowledge and embrace their differences, as well as to value, affirm, and respect each other.