Indian. Guy with long hair. Female. On welfare. Gay men. Dropouts. African Americans.
What’s the first thing you think of when you see those words? Be honest, Peggy Federici would caution.
“We have grown up in a society that’s sexist and racist, so we can’t help it when things come into our minds,” she said Friday. “But if we say them or act on them, we have to say, ‘Whoa!”’
Federici trains high school students at Camp PEACE, an unusual retreat that sprang from concern about racism in the Inland Northwest. “It certainly arose out of a need,” said Federici. “It also makes the statement that we are not all racists, we’re not bigoted.”
Washington and Idaho schools have been sending students here each spring since 1991. A fall session was recently added.
The retreat that ends today is attended by 40 students and counselors from Wallace High School, Lakeside High in Plummer, and three schools from Spokane County’s Mead district.
Thirty-five similar groups have been trained. They’ve gone on to become SWAT teams of a sort, fighting racism in their schools. They’ve done some remarkable things, said the Rev. John Olson, camp director.
“One of the first teams we trained was from Lewis and Clark High School, which went back and trained their entire faculty. They brought in people of color, community leaders and kids, to share their stories.
“When there were racial slurs on campus, the kids went to the home rooms and said that this would not be tolerated at LC.”
When black students moved to Post Falls from New York and had problems, he said, the camp-trained team from Coeur d’Alene High School went there to strengthen the resolve of the Post Falls team.
Teamwork is a key concept at Camp PEACE, which stands for People Everywhere Are Created Equal.
The policy is a recognition that solo activism is tough.
“They come up with a plan to try to change the climate at their schools, to make diversity something that’s not only tolerated, but celebrated,” Olson said.
First, they have some learning to do.
Federici, a North Idaho College teacher, teaches mostly by getting the teenagers to talk.
The exercise asking “what’s the first thing you think of” brought some lively discussion Friday.
Students used sticky-notes to paste their words on posters marked “On Welfare,” “American Indian,” and the like.
Federici was surprised by the lower-than-normal number of derogatory and stereotyped images that were associated with the ethnic minorities. Maybe, she told the group, that was because there were Indians and African-Americans among them.
But the words associated with gay men and dropouts were especially harsh. One girl took great exception to unflattering comments about welfare recipients.
“I completely disagree with the stereotype saying most people on welfare are lazy. I was on welfare. My mom was just divorced, had three kids under the age of six. Our house was clean as can be.”
Another was offended by a label posted under “female.”
“Whoever said we’re bitches can kiss mine. We’re not all like that.”
But another girl said: “I think this sex object thing is true. A lot of women do choose to sell themselves or expose themselves.”
Olson recalled a session in which a black student from Colville spoke up. Not a day went by, he said, that he didn’t hear a racial slur. Other blacks told their painful stories, and suddenly everyone had something to say.
“You couldn’t shut them off,” he said. “They wanted to talk all night.”
Federici tells the students that it’s OK to get “raggedy” during the sessions, to make mistakes. She talks with them about respect, empathy.
“We’ve had a couple of times when things got heated,” she said. “It’s OK. Sometimes you have to get the ugly stuff out on the table before you can move on.”
Students and advisers routinely evaluate the camp with 9.5 on a scale of 10, Olson said.
Participants are usually chosen by counselors or student officers. The most successful ones are a blend of genders, ethnic groups, leaders and followers, said Olson.
The team from Lakeside was getting into the swing on Friday.
Kelly McDougall said she didn’t think students at her school have cultural biases. Ted Colley said “it’s there, but it’s not a major problem.”
But a little more discussion brought up names of offenders.
“I think they should pick the most racist people and make them come to camp,” said Anthony “Flip” Garcia.
But Camp PEACE isn’t meant to be remedial, said Olson.
“We’re not looking for skinheads to come and have a conversion,” he said.
The camp is supported by donations. The biggest contributor is the Disciples of Christ, or Christian Church. The retreats take place at the Methodists’ Twinlow Camp.
But the lessons aren’t overtly religious, said Olson, himself a Lutheran pastor.
Co-sponsors are the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries and the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.
When Ginny DeLong of Coeur d’Alene first suggested the camp, she was victim support chairperson for the task force. She wanted a way to help prevent racism, not just deal with its aftermath.
She’d like to see the camp expanded to include students from Oregon and Montana.
“This isn’t something you solve,” DeLong said of discrimination. “It’s a process of how you look at things, how life is, and that’s always changing.”
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