Sunday, August 03, 2008

Is segregation natural?

Urban Experience is a program designed for suburban youth groups. The students are almost always all white.

Each session I invite several teenagers I know well to participate. They are mostly black...sometimes Hispanic.

My goal with the Urban Experience program is to create awareness...to create new understanding...to help suburban teenagers challenge some of their preconceived (and, often, unconscious) notions about the inner city. I include our teenagers so there is real interaction and engagement with people on an equal level instead of always interacting with inner city residents on a "charity" or "service" level.

I have high hopes that once people begin to see--whether black or white, poor or wealthy, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim--that everyone has goals and dreams...everyone wants to be treated with dignity. I want them to talk to each other so they can understand someone else's definition of dignity and respect. I want them to listen to and learn from each other. I try to challenge participants by initiating conversations (and requiring every teenager from both groups to participate) about racism, socioeconomic status, neighborhoods, and talking about themselves.

This year I began to regret my decision to include my teenagers from Dallas.

As my teenagers talked to me after they had spent their days going into different urban neighborhoods with the group, I felt like I had perpetuated the very stereotypes that I sought to counter.

Though I tried to put teenagers on an equal level, the "poor, black, inner city resident" stereotype, and the assumptions that go along with it, remained. Though it may not have been intentional or obvious to the suburban participants, it was strongly felt by the teenagers I had asked to participate. The absolute last thing I wanted was to hurt the teenagers I interact with on a regular basis.

After contemplating much of this in my own mind, one of the speakers (before his presentation) randomly asked me, "Is segregation natural?"

As I looked across the room, I thought back to the beginning of each week of Urban Experience. Each week, students came in and sat down--whites on one side, blacks on the other. Each time, I made everyone "move around" and "mix it up." By the end of each week, some would gravitate back toward the people with whom they were comfortable (i.e. people of their own ethnicity...people they had known for a while). By the end of the week, however, I only had to give a "look" and people would begin to switch seats and move so that they were sitting between and conversing with new and less familiar friends. As the group would leave on Friday, many exchanged phone numbers, facebook, and myspace pages.

I don't expect that one week fixes everything. In fact, some participants left and did not like or necessarily agree with the approach. However, by creating honest (and uncomfortable) conversations, I have hope that it has challenged people to think about and talk about segregation, assumptions, what led us to this point, and what we can do to reverse it....with others who look like them as well as continuing and seeking out conversation with those who don't. I have hope that as we get to know each other and "see beyond the surface," we will do more to value and respect each other for who we each are...not overlooking people's differences, but celebrating them and learning from them.

As I look back on the three weeks of Urban Experience groups, I reflected on the speaker's question:

Is segregation "natural?" (i.e. innate)

No.

Is segregation "natural?" (i.e. normal...instinctive)

Yes...but only because we have made it that way, make excuses as to why "it's not my fault," and, thus, allow it to continue.

By purposefully and intentionally getting involved with each other, with an openness to learning something from the other, maybe we can change that.
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