Like at other summer camps, the young people who spent a week at MetroTown last month put on skits and competed in sports. But the purpose of MetroTown, unlike a typical recreational summer camp, is to teach students empathy.
Students engaged in camp-wide discussions on race, diversity, gender, sexuality and religion.
MetroTown, held July 21 to 26, is a sleepaway camp offered by the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews and hosted by St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.
In what students called one of the most emotional parts of the experience, the group watched a video about racial profiling, in which the shopkeeper of an upscale boutique approaches a group of innocent black kids who have entered a store. The security guard frisks the young people and escorts them outside.
Several of the black students related to the video, saying they had had similar experiences of discrimination. Some said they had even bought things they didn’t really want just so that they wouldn’t be suspected of stealing.
For Laura, a white student, the video served as a reminder to stand up for others and inspired her to ask herself what she would do in a similar situation.
“If someone was being racially profiled, so obviously, blatantly, would you stick up for them? Or would you just be a bystander, and just keep on going?” she asked. (Organizers asked that students’ last names not be used.)
Laura went to school with Trayvon Martin at Doctor Michael Kropp Senior High. The camp took place less than two weeks after George Zimmerman’s trial verdict was announced.
Although the Zimmerman case was not discussed explicitly, a group of students began discussing it independently while they were playing basketball, with no counselors present. Treston, a senior at Homestead Senior High, said the conversation was mature and respectful and that the teens avoided making assumptions about Martin or Zimmerman.
“I thought it was going to be racially charged, and everyone was going to get angry, but it was really mellow,” Treston said. “We were really talking about how it was blown up in the media, how it became a black-versus-white thing, and everyone was really open about it.”
The photos above were taken during an exercise designed to teach the students about inequality. Students were placed in groups and given certain materials then told to work as a group to create an ideal society. As the game goes on, students realize that the groups have not been given an equal supply of materials, and that the rules apply differently to each group.
MetroTown’s 48 campers were comprised of a few students from each high school in Miami-Dade County. Because the camp receives funding from the Children’s Trust and the Miami Foundation, each student pays just $25 for the week. Many of the students never attended a camp like this before.
"Some [of the students] are kind of pushed to do it, but the majority are into this stuff,” said Jana Rosenbaum, a social worker for the school district, who is a staff counselor at MetroTown.
Participants find common ground through sharing their own stories, and hearing those of others, explained Stevens Gedeon, a staff counselor at MetroTown.
“Our slogan is, 'you can't hate somebody or you can't judge somebody whose story you know,'” Gedeon said.