Memphis teens bridge black-white chasm at camp

August 17, 1992|By Jonathan Tilove | Jonathan Tilove,Newhouse News Service

MEMPHIS, TENN — MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Buried somewhere in America's ancient agony over race is this aching to start over, to keep it simple and to get it right. To be innocent. To be open. To be friends.

For seven days this summer, some Memphis teen-agers got that chance.

In a city as defined and divided by race as any in America, 38 high school students, black and white, lived, ate, worked, played and learned together as part of an unusual program called Bridge Builders.

They made it look easy. They made it seem ordinary. And when itwas over, they didn't want to say goodbye.

"Used to be every time I'd see a white person I'd say 'hello,' they'd say 'hello' and we'd just keep on walking," says Markell Newson, whose high school, Whitehaven, has 10 whites and 1,056 blacks. The way Newson figures it, whites didn't want to talk to him and he saw no reason to talk to them.

But those days, he says, are over now. "I'm going to change," he says. "I'm going to start communicating."

Which is precisely the point of Bridge Builders.

Founded in 1988 by Youth Service, an Episcopal social service agency in Memphis, Bridge Builders brings together high school studentsfrom the city's mostly black public and mostly white private schools for two years of leadership and human relations training that begins with a week together the summer between their sophomore and junior years.

There are other summer camps across the country devoted to bringing together people of different backgrounds. Most notably, the National Council of Christians and Jews has for 35 years run "Anytown" camps that teach teen-agers about cultural pluralism. But Bridge Builders is unusual in its ongoing efforts to develop the relationships kindled during the first summer.

For two years, the kids meet monthly, work on community service projects and reconvene for another camp the following summer.

The program was the brainchild of one of the leading women of Memphis, Rebecca Webb Wilson, whose father-in-law founded the Holiday Inn chain.

Ms. Wilson was worried that her children were going to come of age and prominence in a community where they really had no meaningful contact with blacks, who make up a majority of Memphis' inhabitants.

"I wanted my own children to have a chance to change their thinking and to come to it on their own. You can't preach it. They just have to experience it," says Ms. Wilson, whose two $l daughters went through the program. Now, she says, they have a sensitivity to race their older brother does not.

John Krosnes, Youth Service's director of development, says that when Ms. Wilson first broached the idea, he was among those who warned her that Memphis wasn't ready for black and white, male and female, all living together for a week under one roof.

Mary Taylor, a black secretary whose son Al is a Bridge Builder, says that despite the growth of a black middle class, whites in Memphis are "so used to blacks saying 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am" that they have difficulty dealing with them as peers or leaders.

Last year Willie Herenton was elected the city's first black mayor by 172 votes in an election that amounted to little more than a racial census.

Memphis is 54 percent black and the racial divide is reinforced by a huge black-white economic gap. Nearly half of black Memphians live in poverty. Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock. The city's infant mortality rate is the highest in the country.

Memphis is also the most obvious example of a city where whites deserted the public schools rather than integrate. While some whites have returned in recent years, the public schools remain 80 percent black.

The result is a city in which blacks and whites see each other but don't know each other.

"Most of those entering Bridge Builders never have had a relationship with someone of the opposite race," says Mr. Krosnes.

Bridge Builders doesn't seek to convert bigots. The 19 participating schools are asked to select good kids with leadership potential. The goal is to develop a rapport among young blacks and whites who in a generation will be running Memphis.

They are the cream, and most do not think they arrive with any racial baggage.

"I think they go into it with the idea they are not prejudiced; they think, 'I really like black people, I don't know any but I'm sure if I did I'd like them,' " Ms. Wilson says.

"I don't think I have a fear of blacks," says Ashley Abrahams on the first day of her week at Bridge Builders this summer. But Ashley, who is wearing a "Love God" T-shirt and goes to Briarcrest Christian High School, acknowledges race is not a big factor in her life. "I'm not faced with it that much in school or in church or in my neighborhood."

One of the purposes of Bridge Builders is to make these children comfortable talking about race, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination.

The week is a pastiche of human relations and leadership training. For example, each Bridge Builder prepares a speech to deliver atweek's end.

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