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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

How to teach empathy — by screaming insults?

At a Camp Diversity retreat, high school students are told to act out racism, sexism, anti-gay and anti-Muslim bias to build empathy. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Thousands of Bay Area teenagers have attended four-day camps that claim to teach empathy and leadership by screaming insults and enacting bigotry, reports Karen de Sa in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s Camp Diversity, which follows what’s known as the “Anytown” model:

In a campground hall deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 55 teenagers have been ordered to separate by race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. By groups, the children of Silicon Valley engineers and attorneys, house cleaners and gardeners are sent outside, while their peers are instructed to call out every slur and stereotype they know about them. Some of the Los Altos High students are reluctant, so camp Director Richard Valenzuela urges them on. Middle Easterners are “terrorists — they’re all terrorists!” he shouts. LGBT people are “very defective,” he says, prompting the students to chime in with: “Wrong, sinners, faggot, disgusting.” After students choose “good at math” for Asians, Valenzuela turns to their teachers. “Staff, any others?” They add “tiny vaginas” and “small penises” to the list. Students’ labels of “eat watermelon” and “can’t swim” for African Americans don’t go far enough. “Porch monkeys,” “coons,” the adults offer. . . .  Valenzuela presses on, prodding the shaken teens to share any feelings the exercise has provoked. A series of agonized confessions ensues: stories of a sibling’s rape, an alcoholic parent, a lesbian rejected by her family.

Camp staff, volunteers and teachers who’ve received 90 minutes of training lead teens through the exercises. Some camps have a social worker or counselor available. Others do not.

 Latino students will be ordered to clean up after whites and ushered into restrooms labeled “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.” Jewish students will be pinned with yellow stars and taunted about the Holocaust. Some teens will be called “retards” and slapped on the back of the head. And more than once, students will be encouraged to reveal whether they have contemplated suicide.

There’s no evidence this sort of anti-prejudice program works, Betsy Levy Paluck, a Princeton psychology professor, told the Chronicle. “It’s ethically objectionable to unearth students’ own pain and to put it on display for others,” she said.

Encouraging teens to talk about suicidal thoughts is dangerous, others told de Sa.

Three- to eight-day Anytown camps have operated nationwide since the ’50s, she reports. “Typically costs are covered by donations, grants and school funds.”

“At many camps, students are encouraged to keep the exercises a secret, so they don’t ruin the surprise for the next group,” writes de Sa, whose own children went through Anytown camps when they were in high school.

Her well-reported story is having an impact. I predict funding will dry up.

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