(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.