By Margaret T. Simpson
In 2008, youth workers knew something was wrong in Pasadena’s public high schools. Warring teen groups and gang members staged frequent fights that resulted in police intervention and arrests. Ongoing racial and ethnic hostility, including the deaths of 10 young men in gang-related shootings in 2007, added to the tension for teens living and studying in Pasadena.
Students were pressured and polarized by cliques and gangs that vied for control of student loyalties and friendships.
“Students can’t talk to each other because they’re in different races,” said Christy Zamani, executive director of Day One, a local drug prevention and youth advocacy program. “They can’t mix races. They’re getting bullied for talking to one another.”
Ashley Phillips, outreach coordinator for the YWCA Pasadena-Foothill Valley, said on-school conflicts are a source of emotional distress for many teens.
“I think a lot of students feel really lonely,” she said. “If you try and bring somebody into your group, you put yourself at risk, you put yourself on the line to be chastised and shamed. Bullying is extreme.”
Dismayed by a teen culture based on intolerance and stereotypes, directors of local nonprofit youth programs designed Culture Shock, a week-long summer workshop that teaches conflict resolution and leadership skills to teens ages 13-17 from Pasadena’s public and private high schools.
“It was born out of our experiences as youth workers here in Pasadena,” said Dr. Steve Wiebe, executive director of New Vision Partners, one of the faith-based sponsors of Culture Shock.
“We’ve had our share of youth violence and ethnic tensions in Pasadena,” he said. “This is really a change for us as a longer-term goal. We would like to prevent violence and help build the community here in Pasadena.”
In addition to New Vision Partners, Day One and the YWCA, other sponsors of this summer’s Culture Shock are community nonprofits (some faith-based) with a history of successful community outreach and peacemaking programs: All Saints Church, Western Justice Center, The California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ) and The Flintridge Center.
Last week, 25 high-school students attended the third annual Culture Shock in a spacious conference center at All Saints Church in mid-town Pasadena. The four-day workshop, led by trainers from CCEJ, combined lectures, interactive exercises and informal discussions to explore the concepts of stereotyping, identity and conflict resolution in schools and communities. For lunch, students and trainers were treated to a variety of cuisines, including Japanese, Soul Food and Tibetan, catered by local restaurants.
“Students who participated in Culture Shock represented a variety of cultures, races, different neighborhoods, both private and public schools,” said Kimmy Maniquis, CCEJ program specialist and trainer.
Maniquis said the goal was to give students skills to communicate across cultural barriers. “By culture, we mean anything — social, racial, gender,” she said.
Barriers also include economic class and which school a student attends. “There’s a gap between public and private school students,” said Dr. Wiebe. “We have a huge private school population, close to 8,000. It’s a huge issue here in the city.”
Students were encouraged to examine their beliefs about other cultures, said Zamani. “We asked questions: What are these stereotypes? How do we empower these stereotypes with our behaviors? Because these are not all true,” she said.
For Hayden Betts, 16, the interactive exercises and personal sharing sessions helped close a gap between theory and reality. “As soon as we talk about personal things it gets more real,” he said. “It has been pounded into us — equality, diversity — but when it works it can be really touching.”
Learning about the roots of bias and prejudice was useful for Kayli Dimacali, 14. “This gives me a wider perspective on why things happen between people. It’s teaching me more about conflict,” she said.
“It’s knowing more about prejudice and stereotypes,” said Brianna Gitchuway, 15. For Kalisha Boykin, 14, “It’s showing me a different way of looking at things.”
The Diversity Stand-Up exercise was a favorite of Saige Spence, 15. Students sit in a circle while the trainer reads a series of statements about culture, race or identity. When a statement “fits,” the student stands up. “We’re learning about different cultures. You find out that they’re a lot like you,” she said.
“We learned how you can hurt people’s feelings and about people who have judgment problems,” said Max Rahn, 15. “If more people grew up with the right point of view there’d be fewer problems.”
Knowing that other students have shared your personal experiences was the breakthrough for Denisha Ross, 16. “I feel relieved,” she said.
The Privilege Walk is an interactive activity that asked students to step forward or backward based upon a set of 50 questions about race, gender and family of origin. (“Did you grow up in a family with 50 or more books at home? Do you see drug dealing and prostitution where you live?”) As students changed position their relationship status changed as well.
“We all ended up in the same place,” said Ashley Mercado, 15. “It didn’t matter where you came from.”
The long-term goal for Culture Shock sponsors is to develop community leaders by building an alumni base of student graduates. Through a series of community projects and human relations training, alumni can return as peer coaches to the next group of Culture Shock participants. With stronger ties to friends, family and neighborhoods, sponsors believe Pasadena can be a more peaceful place to live.
“When kids are able to have an experience of respect and compassion through Culture Shock, they grow to be young adults that are an amazing voice for justice and respect,” said Phillips.
Zamani said this summer’s graduates are keeping in touch by texting and Facebooking each other.
“The students got an opportunity to interact with each other on so many different levels,” she said. “It’s really cool to watch them transform. The goal is that with the newfound awareness they’ll take that back to their schools and help us build more peace in their community.”