Unitown helps students admit their prejudices — then move past them
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
ROELAND PARK — Bishop Miege sophomore Austin Edwards was shocked when he walked into a classroom here and saw the word “illiterate” written on a flip chart under the heading “African American/Black.”
Above and below “illiterate” was scrawled a long list of equally disparaging words.
Edwards turned and faced the group of white students sitting in a semicircle spanning the room. They had generated the list.
Crossing his arms over his chest, confrontation in his stance, Edwards joined fellow black students at the front of the room.
They all had just finished reading the same list. And the tension in the stare-down was palpable.
The white students were looking down and away. Some of them were clearly uncomfortable.
Many were beginning to cry.
Welcome to Unitown.
Unitown is a life-changing 24-hour retreat for high-school students, designed to address prejudice, discrimination and conflict while raising awareness of diversity issues.
The heart and soul of Unitown is its facilitator, Kansas City Missouri school board president Airick Leonard West.
“Unitown allows students to look at the world as larger than themselves and learn to be considerate of other people’s experiences and viewpoints,” said West.
“They leave here with the power to live out their values and their beliefs,” he said.
West believes so strongly in the program that he volunteers his time to present it.
Mary Perrini, director of campus ministry at Bishop Miege, initially brought Unitown to her school 16 years ago.
“I started on Holy Thursday in 1995, with a group of about eight or nine kids,” she recalled. “And we’ve been doing them every year since.”
A record crowd of 77 students attended this year’s retreat, which was co-hosted by St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park. The group also included students from Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan., and Paseo Academy in Kansas City, Mo.
West is assisted at Unitown by prior attendees that he personally trains to be peer counselors through a separate leadership-development program.
“The only way to come back is to come back as a leader,” he explained.
Unitown educates participants — referred to as delegates — through a series of games and activities that are fastpaced, but emotionally charged.
“We’re just playing all these silly games and singing,” said West. “But our intention is really focused around diversity awareness issues and growing these students’ capacity to be leaders in that regard.”
More than a game
As Edwards discovered when he walked into the classroom and confronted the list of prejudices, often what starts out as a game at Unitown quickly becomes serious business.
In the “Spy Exercise” described above, the black delegates had been instructed to leave the room. The remaining delegates were instructed to make a list of any words or phrases they had heard used to describe the black/African-American community.
They were then instructed to write down these words or phrases on the flip chart at the front of the room.
Everyone, West insisted, should be completely honest.
When the black delegates were invited to return, they stood quietly as they read the list, then turned to face the other group.
The resulting discussion was emotional, educational and cleansing.
“The first thing I noticed was the word ‘illiterate,’” said Edwards. “I thought it was ironic, because I saw at least five other words on the list that were misspelled.”
“I felt like it really hit me hard the first time I went,” said Bishop Ward junior Jozzi Rainey, a peer counselor who is also black. “But this time it didn’t have as big an effect on me.
“Those are just stereotypes, and I didn’t let them get to me — that’s not who we are.”
“The variety we had in that AfricanAmerican group made it interesting,” said Bishop Miege senior Hannah Holt, a peer counselor who was attending Unitown for her fourth time. “We had the star of the basketball team, we had the valedictorian and we had all sorts of people.”
“You realized no matter how hard they work, they’re always going to be a step behind because of those stereotypes,” she said. “I think that was the kicker.”
“Spy Exercise” was by no means the most intense moment at Unitown. The next day, in an exercise called “Gender Reflection,” the girls and boys were separated and instructed to make a list of characteristics of an ideal mate.
Some characteristics on the girls’ list may have been unrealistic. But the boys, alone in a room awash in testosterone, came up with a list Casanova would blush to read.
When the groups recombined, however, there wasn’t a Casanova in sight.
The boys had to read every item on their list — out loud — to the girls.
“It gets me every single time,” said Holt. “Where does this stuff come from?
“The boys feel super uncomfortable.
“But the thing is, we feel super uncomfortable trying to fulfill all those things they want.”
After the lists were read, it was question-and-answer time.
“The boys understood the girls better after that,” said Rainey.
Holt agreed, saying students of both sexes learned something from the exchange.
“I think it hits them that what they want in their ideal mates — how hard that impacts the opposite sex,” she said.
Another “game” that touched many students deeply was a deceptively simple exercise called “Gender Stand-up.”
“Airick read a statement and, if it was true, you stood up,” explained Rainey.
“They start off pretty light,” said Holt. “Like ‘Please stand if you’ve ever worn clothing that you thought was restrictive or uncomfortable.’ Then it gets into like, ‘Please stand if you’ve ever experienced molestation.’ “
It’s a good way to let a lot of things off your chest without saying anything,” she said.
Edwards said the “Gender Stand-up” exercise made him revise his opinion of some fellow students he thought had it made.
“In the end, I learned a lot,” he said. “Some of the people who I think of as always happy and perky actually have pretty sad and disturbed pasts.”
“You learn that not everybody is the same and not everybody is perfect,” said Rainey. “And everybody has their struggles.”
Up and down
An inevitable result of the intensity of the Unitown experience is an explosion of emotion on the part of many students. “
Every time, we have people break down and cry,” said Holt, “because everyone’s story gets to be heard. And a lot of times, it’s the first time people have gotten to tell their story and feel comfortable about doing it.”
In between activities, delegates break into small “family” groups, led by peer counselors, for discussion, debriefing and decompression.
“And through this experience we all become kind of a family,” said Holt. “I’ve never told people some of the stories I’ve told on this retreat. It’s a very nice way to escape from the place where you’re supposed to hide everything.”
Unitown is a roller coaster ride — one minute a student might be participating in a life-changing group exercise; the next, in an intimate family discussion moment. And some games really are just about having fun.
Edwards said the latter were some of his favorite moments at the retreat.
“We played a game called ‘In My Hand,’” he said. “One member from each team would race to [West] and he’d ask for something like a water bottle, a sweat shirt, a religious object.”
Teams competed to find the most items. The winning team was first in the food line for dinner.
“And then, for breakfast,” said Edwards, “we had to get up early and sing and dance.”
All the participants agreed West was the perfect conductor for this wild ride.
“Airick West can be so energetic. But two minutes later, he is more serious than anyone I’ve seen,” said Holt. “He has to be that way; it’s just the nature of the retreat.”
One of the most moving moments of Unitown came at the end, during the closing circle, when participants held hands and shared their thoughts about the experience.
“That closing circle really showed that they had grown in awareness of their own thoughts and prejudices, as well as seeing people from a different perspective,” said Perrini.
“Changed? I’m sure I have,” said Edwards. “I just don’t know how much I’ve changed. I know I learned you can discriminate without even realizing it.”
“You learn so much from new people, and you come out with a different view of other people and other races,” said Rainey. “And you learn you shouldn’t judge people if you don’t know them.”
“And so knowledge is power,” said Perrini. “The more awareness and the more understanding and the more empathy we can teach these kids, the better our world will be.
“As Catholic Christians, I believe we are called to be Christ-like in all that we do.”
“Treating one another with dignity is key to our Catholic social teaching,” she continued. “Racism, stereotypes, classism — all erode the dignity of another person.
“What better way to grow in our faith than to learn from one another? In Unitown, we are allowed to walk in another’s shoes.
“I believe Jesus would be right there with us.”
West calls Unitown a great awareness-building instrument that gives high school students essential skills to succeed out in the real world.
“They’re going to go out into the rest of the world and there’s going to be a little bit of everyone there,” he said.
“And your capacity to compete on the economic world stage is always going to be a direct function of your ability to communicate with and work with whomever you come across,” he added.
“When I looked around the room at the end,” said Holt, “I saw how many people were standing in that circle with me.
“And it was so much easier then to think that I can start changing the world, because I’ve got all these people who will support me in doing so.”