‘TAP Into Summer’ Review

Taha Vahanvaty

(Originally published in 2021)

Disclaimer: BridgeUSA acquired The Acceptance Project (TAP) in April 2022 as part of its initiative to engage high school students in constructive discussion. This blog post was previously written by TAP’s Founder Taha Vahanvaty to review TAP’s summer camp and highlight the students’ involvement in the program.

Well, we did it!

After months of planning, years of fundraising, and countless hours of marketing, we pulled off a summer camp experience like no other.

TAP started out in 2016 as a club at Stroudsburg Junior High School. It was designed simply as a means to give students the space and opportunity to engage in dialogue with one another about the issues facing our community and nation.

After 4 years of dialogue sessions, our team realized that TAP’s model of facilitating conversation was incredibly effective. We wanted to spread our model to other schools that needed more facilitators, and we needed to make sure that students were willing and eager to continue the conversation long after I was gone. Our solution was “TAP Into Summer”: a one-week, all expenses paid, a dialogue-intensive summer camp hosted at the Kirkridge Retreat Center.

And here was the result:

Day One: July 28, 2021

As campers emerged from their parents’ cars, they were led to their rooms before all gathering at the dining hall. The campers immediately hit it off. You would have never guessed that they were all complete strangers.

Following lunch and some icebreakers, we oriented students to our mission, explained the purpose of civil discourse, and introduced them to the guidelines that would help them keep discussions in their schools respectful and inclusive.

To keep the campers active, we traveled to Kirkridge’s soccer field to prepare for “Knocker Knocker” and “Caterpillar Wars.” Students were split into teams played competitive games through which they could rack up points.

In the first event, “Knocker Knocker,” students from each team had to charge towards each other in an inflatable bubble to knock the opposing team over. The second game was “Caterpillar Wars.” Four students from each team had to race and tag the other team, all while synchronizing their walking in a giant rug. (Take a look at the photo…it’ll be easier to understand.)

After dinner, students broke off into groups of three to play their first round of We’re Not Really Strangers (WRNRS), a card game designed to help students to ask introspective questions about one another.

Everyone then gathered around the campfire, played Uno, and finally went to bed. Even during their first day, campers were already finding ways to come together as a community.

Day 2: July 29, 2021

Campers (with a few yawns and complaints) woke up at 8 am for breakfast.

After breakfast, we dove back into facilitator training. Day Two’s lessons taught students how to develop a TAP Talk, how to balance questions that lean left or right, the art of the follow-up, and how to transition from question to question.

Following a delicious taco lunch, we launched our first TAP-style dialogue. The topic – Police Accountability. After we spent 90 minutes facilitating dialogue amongst the campers, two guest speakers arrived to share their perspectives on the issue. Christa Caceres, the chairperson of our county’s NAACP chapter, and Chief Bill Parrish, head of security at ESU and formerChief of Stroudsburg Area Regional Police.

Christa provided insight into the trauma people of color have experienced as a result of police brutality and the recent tragic death of Christian Hall at the hands of Pennsylvania State Troopers. Bill spoke about his work mediating conversations between police and the general public at assemblies for local public high schools. Both Christa and Bill emphasized that people of color and police must continue to work together if we are to solve this problem. Both have participated in widely seen Zoom forums on this issue.

At the end of their presentation, the kids were free to ask any questions, and most came away understanding that there is more grey area regarding the topic than they had thought.

We closed up the night with another round of WRNRS and an awe-inspiring collective karaoke performance. There were sing-alongs, solo shows, duets, and all-around good vibes.

Day 3: July 30, 2021

Breakfast this morning was accompanied by team-building activities to help campers wake up following their late-night karaoke fest.

On day three, we demonstrated to the campers the importance of balancing questions when speaking to a group. While student facilitators might be liberal, they must frame some questions that will appeal to the values of the more conservative students or conversations will be one-sided and ineffective. An exercise on writing such questions turned out to be challenging for students, but with some coaching, the results were promising.

In the afternoon, we discussed the topic of privilege. We played some interactive games that helped us see the ways that students are privileged as a result of their identities: male vs female, wealthy vs poor, white vs. BIPOC, LGBTQ+ vs. straight, etc. They shared their personal experiences on these issues, and in turn bonded as a group.

After our opening discussion, three guest speakers came from Street to Feet, a Stroudsburg-based organization that partners with local churches to provide front-line assistance to our homeless population. The stories of their work were both startling and eye-opening. Scores of people have been helped off the streets to find housing and even employment through their intervention.

It was humbling for us to understand the role of a social worker and to imagine the struggles of a homeless person living under the inter-borough bridge even in the winter. We realized these social workers are heroes.

After debriefing for an hour we had dinner, played a lengthy round of WRNRS, and called it a night.

Day 4: July 31, 2021

After breakfast, we opened up the day with a hike to Columcille, a megalith park that blends spirituality with nature.

Invigorated by the morning outdoors, students were ready to begin their camp “capstone project”. Students broke off into teams of 2-3 and were assigned to develop a TAP Talk on a topic of their choice and facilitate a dialogue for 30 min.

These were the topics chosen: Patriotism, Freedom of Speech, Legalization of Marijuana, Gender Equality, LGBTQ+ Rights, and Cultural Appropriation.

Our team was really impressed with all of the dialogue sessions the students organized. Each discussion was prefaced by a spectrum exercise. The facilitator would read a statement aloud and the participants would move to the left of the room if they disagreed and to the right if they agreed.

After testing the waters, the group would sit in a circle. and the facilitator teams would go through the same questions one at a time to open up discussion. Throughout this process, student facilitators utilized the following suggestions as guidelines for an effective conversation:

  • 👀 Ask for elaboration: You want them to provide further details on their initial idea.
  • 🎭 Ask in a different way: You want them to approach their idea from a different perspective.
  • 🕸️ Ask about a related topic: You think there’s a connection to be made
  • 💪🏽 Ask them to challenge assumptions: You want to surface what’s unsaid.

After each team completed their 30-minute facilitation with the larger group, they received feedback from the participants. In spite of this scrutiny, the students seemed to appreciate all critiques.

Afterward, the staff met individually with each student team that would be working as TAP leaders in their own schools this fall. We asked if they felt they could develop and lead a TAP chapter in their respective schools. Every single student said yes!

To destress from the weeks activities and projects we headed down to the soccer field to engage in the most intense water balloon fight we’ve ever seen. After drying off we played a round of WRNRS and let the campers stay up late for their last night together.

Day 5: August 1, 2021

After breakfast, we headed down to the Labyrinth, a path at Columncile meant to invoke spirituality and hope. Each camper picked up a small stone and walked in silence along the windy path to its center. They were to hold in their mind and heart a specific social issue they care deeply about. Once in the center they laid their stone on the large center stone and named their concern: gun control, climate change, inequality, broken families, etc. On the way back out of the Labyrinth, I asked them to think about what they might be able to do to address their issue.

Then, while on our final hike, a thunderstorm broke out. We quickly ran for shelter under a wooden structure designed to give Appalachian backpackers some relief from the elements. For the next hour, we kept our spirits high by singing campfire songs before realizing that we had no choice but to walk back to the campus through the torrential downpour.

After drying off and eating lunch, we began our closing ceremony. Campers and their parents joined us in the main meeting room overlooking the Appalachian landscape.

Our team gave out certificates and handwritten notes to each student congratulating them on a specific strength they exhibited during our week together. The students were thrilled and the parents were understandably very proud.

Our TAP Officers will no doubt continue to be in touch with one another as they formed a strong bond during their week together.

Our impact will not be measured solely on the number of TAP chapters students create after going back to their respective schools. It will be apparent in the memories, lessons, and stories these students take with them throughout their lives. These are the facilitators of tomorrow, ready to continue the conversations of today.

Taha Vahanvaty

(Originally published on April 21, 2021)

Disclaimer: BridgeUSA acquired The Acceptance Project (TAP) in April 2022 as part of its initiative to engage high school students in constructive discussion. This blog post was previously written by Taha Vahanvaty, Founder of TAP, to review the organization’s growth over five years.

A conversation between TAP Founder, Taha Vahanvaty, and former TAP advisor Tim Herb.

The Acceptance Project (TAP) was founded as a club at Stroudsburg Junior High School (SJHS) by then eighth-grader, Taha Vahanvaty. The goal of TAP was to give students the opportunity and space to engage in civil discourse about their communities and the nation’s most pressing issues.

Taha recognized that TAP’s model of facilitating dialogue could benefit schools across Pennsylvania and as a result started TAP’s summer program; TAP Into Summer. TAP Into Summer is a one-week, overnight, all expenses paid, dialogue intensive summer camp hosted at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in the Poconos. Through the summer camp, students learn how to start, lead, and run a TAP chapter at their high school.

In order to take TAP’s conversations to the next level Taha began piloting TAP’s new focus group program; the first of which is titled “TAP Into Race”. TAP has recruited graduate student facilitators from East Stroudsburg University’s (ESU) Diversity Dialogue Project (DDP) to mediate the focus group and to collect qualitative data on how SASD students engage in conversations centered around TAP’s foundational belief is that strengthening our democracy begins with inculcating values of empathy, dialogue, and deliberation in young people. “We are the future,” said Taha and the conversations start with us, the conversation starts at TAP.”

TAP is Merging With BridgeUSA

Expanding on its initiative to bring high school students into the political discussion.

April 25, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO — BridgeUSA is announcing the latest incorporation of The Acceptance Project into the BridgeUSA network to further its mission of engaging America’s youth in constructive political dialogue.

The Acceptance Project (TAP) was founded in 2017 by Taha Vahanvaty when he was in 8th grade. Following the 2016 presidential election, his school district, Stroudsburg Area School District, saw a sharp uptick in verbal, physical, and online incivility. For this reason, Vahanvaty created The Acceptance Project, a club designed to foster constructive discourse grounded in the lived experiences of his peers. Through TAP, students are provided with the space and opportunity to engage across their differences through productive conversation.

This April, TAP’s 10 existing chapters will be added to BridgeUSA’s High School community, and their leaders will work with BridgeUSA to strengthen and grow their bridge-building efforts. By joining these two communities, BridgeUSA is expanding its high school initiative to engage students who are passionate about bridging our political divides through empathy and productive conversation.

After four years of facilitating dialogues on issues such as police accountability, gender identity and cancel culture, Vahanvaty decided to expand his initiative to other schools in his community. As a result, in 2021 he launched “TAP Into Summer” (TAPIS), a one-week, all expenses paid, dialogue intensive summer camp hosted at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Through the program, 15 students from across nine different school districts were equipped with leadership and facilitation skills to start and run TAP chapters at their own high schools.

“By empowering students with the means to facilitate difficult conversations, we can lay the foundation for youth-led peacebuilding across the country,” said Taha Vahanvaty, Founder of TAP. “Over the last five years, I have watched TAP grow from a simple after-school club to a full-fledged organization with the mission of creating a new generation of empathetic leaders, active listeners, and critical thinkers. Bridging forces with BridgeUSA is the next step toward achieving this mission on a national scale.”

Emily Garcia, Director of Youth Engagement at BridgeUSA, has worked closely with Taha to connect TAP’s 10 existing chapters and their members into the Bridge High School network.  

“In my time working on this initiative with Taha, it’s been exciting to see his commitment to improving campus culture and engaging his peers,” said Emily. “He’s left us with a group of dedicated and optimistic high schoolers who are eager to improve our political dialogue. We’re excited to connect with more of these students and expand opportunities on campus for discussion.”

Vahanvaty will attend American University as a freshman this Fall. He will remain a part of BridgeUSA’s network as an advisor to the high school program. “It pleases me to know that my passion for bridge building will always have a place and a purpose at BridgeUSA,” he said.

“BridgeUSA is a place for young people to make a difference in their communities, so when we meet other students who are passionate about this work and have initiatives of their own, it’s very encouraging,” said Manu Meel, CEO of BridgeUSA. “Taha has done great work bringing students into the conversation with TAP and growing its community. We’re looking forward to expanding on that foundation and wish him the best as he enters his next chapter.”

BridgeUSA added high school chapters to its network in August 2021. By doing so, we are creating a pipeline from the beginning of high school to end of college for students to practice constructive discourse and engage across lines of difference.

Read more about TAP in the news, here.

To learn more about BridgeUSA High School click here

Taher MV

(Originally published on Mar 25, 2021)

Disclaimer: BridgeUSA acquired The Acceptance Project (TAP) in April 2022 as part of its initiative to engage high school students in constructive discussion. This blog post was previously written by Taher MV to highlight compassion fatigue among young people.

Compassion Fatigue has turned teens away from news, but they are finding ways to tune in again.

It is hard to sincerely care about the plethora of problems facing the country right now. Whether it is a mass shooting in California or an economic catastrophe in Haiti, people are constantly being bombarded with the updated calamities of the world.

What is often mistaken as apathy or woeful ignorance is something else entirely; compassion fatigue. The continuous exposure to negative media and problems with our world has stripped many of their humanity and ability to empathize. Compassion fatigue is very similar to burnout. It’s the feeling of emotional or physical exhaustion with your surroundings leading to the inability to empathize with others or feel compassion for them.

Originally, compassion fatigue was most associated with first responders and people who assist victims of trauma on daily basis. Up to 86% of Urgent Care nurses showed signs of compassion fatigue, often

causing a disconnect between patients and caregivers, hindering their ability to connect and provide adequate care to their patients.

However, recent research has proved that compassion fatigue is no longer unique to front-line workers. Its new demographic: teens. Because of the highly impressionable mind of teens and the growing reach of negative journalism, compassion fatigue has become more widespread in recent years. Social media and modern news outlets have allowed for continuous feeds filled with tragedy and hardship around the world. This constant intake of negative information takes a severe toll on the mind and its ability to empathize with those afflicted.

Single motherhood rates are at an all-time high and coupled with the fact that around 50% of marriages end in divorce, the mental strain on young minds is high. The average college debt is over $30,000 and unemployment for teens and millennials is only rising.

The hard truth is that most of the world’s calamities or disasters are just not a priority for American students. It is not a matter of them being cold and heartless, but as high schoolers, they have to deal with their own life troubles before they move on to worrying about the rest of the world.

With compassion fatigue on the rise, the major problems we face don’t seem to be going away. Thankfully, there is a solution to the emotional burnout many of us feel. Staying involved and educated about important current events without investing yourself too much is key in remaining empathic and informed.

Isolation and helplessness are key factors of compassion fatigue and compound the negative effects. Discussion and opportunities to share your feelings are some of the most vital preventative measures you can take in making sure you remain grounded and healthy.

Getting students involved in current events and the news is a process. It requires a societal effort to adapt the information to the lives of a teen. The solution to getting students more informed is not to guilt them or shove the information down their throats. It is to simply show them that their opinion matters, and that their voice no matter how small can create a change.