What can I do? Empower.

By Rickeena Holloway November 21 2016

Ask most people about their most memorable summer camp experiences and you may hear tales of campfire s’mores and cabin rivalries. But ask anyone who attended a very special camp — one called Anytown, a week-long summer social-justice program for high schoolers — to share camp memories, and you will hear tales of eye-opening, gut-wrenching experiences of being exposed to the ugly faces of injustice.

But why would any high school student spend their precious summer days learning about racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and every other “ism”? Why would cohort after cohort of teenagers gather summer after summer to dig into some of the darkest and most painful realities that plague our communities and our society?

The answer is both simple and complex: empowerment.

If you support an adolescent to navigate their own way through a power struggle, they’ll be sold on whatever you’re selling. Developmentally, it’s simply in their nature to question systems and power dynamics. Should that power struggle stem from the imbalance of power that inherently accompanies oppression and injustice, then that young person now has the tools to be an agent for social change.

I was that teenager nearly half my life ago when I attended Anytown. I was 16 and questioning everything: What I wanted to do with my life, whether or not I had what it would take to accomplish whatever I was dreaming up on my own, what I had learned about life and the world from my parents, my belief in God. Typical teenage things.

Then I attended Anytown. All these years later I can say, with confidence, that it was one of the most pivotal and life-changing weeks of my life. I spent the week with teens from all over my city, from all walks of life, from every background imaginable. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much diversity in one place in my hometown than I did at Anytown. But that diversity is precisely what helped us learn from each other, challenge each other, and support each other through the vulnerable, personal, and often painful moments that came with participating in the process.

Sure, there were camp songs, celebrations, and the occasional crushes among campers, but Anytown was not always light and fun. It got tough. Things got raw and real. But this was because Anytown was a safe space to let it all out. To realize and name our prejudices. To share the feelings and experiences connected to the advantages and disadvantages of our various identities. To lay it all on the table without fear of judgement and for the sole purpose of understanding and supporting each other. To dig deep, get dirty, and talk about the things that made the adults around us uncomfortable.

As we all grew to feel more and more like family, I remember thinking that despite being named “Anytown,” there was no other place in the world like it. I remember the ride home from camp with my mom. I felt like I had just been thrown back into a cruel world that looked and felt different — a world that Anytown had inspired and challenged me to improve for the people surrounding me. Though the experience left me with even more questions than I had when I arrived, it also left me feeling empowered by the belief that as a young, black girl from Kansas City, I could do small things to change the world in big ways — and that I had an army of allies by my side to not only help me, but to hold me accountable.

As I grew up, I continued to study the causes and effects of privilege, and take my own stands against injustices. It started with an essay I wrote about my Anytown experience that allowed me to spread the word about the program nationally. In college, I chose to dive a little deeper in my study of privilege and injustice by double-majoring in communication and African American studies to get a better understanding of the media’s role in perpetuating the power dynamics that promote injustice. I began a career in journalism to fight the media stereotypes of disadvantaged people from within, to portray them in a positive light. Today, I am the change I wish to see in the world: I teach and show young girls of color that they can be much more than what the world expects of them.

Lately, I have been reminded of that beautiful feeling and my summer at Anytown as recent injustices have spawned tragedy across the country. Tears sting my face as verdicts sting my spirit. My stomach squirms like the bodies in the videos — seconds away from slipping into lifelessness. My heart breaks watching the news describe a tragedy that stemmed from hate. My friend desperately asks what she can do as a white woman who, unlike me, will never have to worry about her husband when he leaves home wearing a hoodie. I dread bringing children of my own into a world that I know will not love, support, or value them the way I will. In these moments, I remember Anytown when it all feels hopeless.

Anytown is the answer to the burning (and often daunting) question many of us have been asking ourselves: “What can I do?”

It is the forum in which we can be honest about our ignorance and our efforts to address it. It is the space in which we can work toward the understanding that alleviates fear — the same fear that has proven to be lethal throughout American history. It is the vehicle that can mobilize the young people and allies to initiate social change.

Anytown is how we can equip today’s youth with the tools it takes to to be the leaders our communities, our country and our world need now more than ever.

It is a weapon against injustice. It is a source of hope. It is a call to action.

This is my story. There are thousands like it. I hope to inspire many more, which is why I am working with fellow Anytown alums and allies to help restart the program through AnytownKC. By telling my story and by making a financial contribution to the program, I hope to empower a new generation of leaders to be agents of social change and inclusion. I hope you will join me.

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