Strings falling from hand to hand, pulled one by one and fluttering gently to the ground, a pile of soft blue punches to the gut. “If you have been ever denied an employment opportunity because of your race, sex, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, give up a string.” Strands of yarn drop all around the room. “If you grew up in a house with more than fifty books, take a string.” I pick up one from the pile resting on my leg and look around the room, amazed at how few people do this with me. “Take a string if your parents ever told you you were smart, beautiful and could accomplish anything.” The girl sitting to my left, tears sliding down her coffee-brown cheeks, does not pick up a string.
This was the final act of Americorps NCCC’s diversity program, a day-long mélange of laughter and tears and profoundly moving moments. Shepherded by diversity experts Bear and Shoshanna, Summit Unit completed a half-dozen activities designed to help us understand how different and how similar we were. It sounds tacky and banal in the abstract, but I assure you that that’s the only place where it does. Diversity training was where I began to fully understand that the NCCC meant what it said in its four-word mission statement. “Strengthening communities, developing leaders” is more than just lip service around here. They truly mean to develop us as leaders, and to do that, they’ll break us down and remake us on levels we never expected.
Diversity training is one of those levels, and it’s all about the unspoken truths around you. It makes you confront inequality, hypocrisy and sadness all around you—and it does that not in a judgmental way, but in a comforting way. Here’s one example. We were given a sheet with a list of conversational irritants—insincerity, constant apologizing, being unduly repetitive, that kind of thing—and asked to mark down the ones that really irritated us. With a partner, we spent two minutes each talking about the things that drove us nuts, then switched partners and did it again—with a twist. This time, we were asked to mark down our own conversational sins, then own up to them with our partners. Most of the time, the things that drove us bananas—of course—were the things we ourselves were guilty of.
It’s the kind of thing that likely wouldn’t work with a normal group of 18-24 year-olds, that would be laughed off or wouldn’t have the desired impact. But the reason it works, as I’ve been reminding myself since I came here, is that—as a Corps—we are decidedly not a normal sampling of our age group. With very few exceptions, we all came ready to listen, learn and understand. That’s one reason why diversity training worked as well as it did with just about everybody.
The other reason is Bear and Shoshanna themselves and the activities they designed for us. In a training update on Friday, one of the NCCC staff mentioned that they were on a “very short list” for trainings across the government. They have the experience: if I heard correctly, both of them have their graduate degrees in diversity-related fields. Bear is Native American; Shoshanna is Jewish and bisexual. For every low of discrimination and disadvantage, they have been there. They have lived there. And they are very, very good at getting you to understand what that means.
That was the strings game at its best, the culmination of the whole day. After a lot of time in the “shallow end” of the diversity pool, the time had come to dig deep and dive in. We had just finished an activity, sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply frustrating, where everyone comes from a different planet with its own social quirk (can’t look anyone in the eyes, speaks only in whispers, etc). My planet was Ephedra, where you can’t stand closer than five feet to anyone else; I was trying vainly to converse with Jackie from Zoltron, who could only speak when she was physically touching somebody. You can imagine how that went—I was crashing into tables trying to get away, she was cracking up, I was cracking up, we were both trying to make ourselves understood somehow and no doubt making a stupendous racket. It was cartoony, but it made sense: you have to respect peoples’ cultural values, and you’ll never know how frustrating that can be until you’re on the wrong side of well-intentioned disrespect.
But back to the story. String theory came right after that, if I recall correctly. The premise was simple: everyone sat in absolute silence, broken only by two of the team leaders reading sentences off a sheet. Everyone began the game with half of their forty strands of yarn held in one hand; if you were subject to any given privilege (as read by the TL), you picked up one string. If you were disadvantaged by something, you dropped one. And it was just brutal. Things that were pretty much universal in the suburb where I grew up—your parents’ love and kindness, access to culture and the arts, never having gone hungry as a child—are apparently anything but. String theory took all the unspoken privileges in the room—white privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, you name it privilege—and made them concrete, tangible, visually overpowering.
By the time it was all over, several people were in tears. Some held almost all of their strings in one hand, while others were down to a few measly threads. I haven’t seen a group of people that crushed since the Israeli Holocaust Museum. But that was when Bear spoke up and started putting everyone back together. He told us that it didn’t matter which end of the spectrum we’d ended up on.
Bear told us that it was the responsibility of the privileged to work towards the betterment of all, and he pointed to the profoundly unprivileged as people who had gone above and beyond where society said they should. “If I did this exercise,” he said with tears of his own, “I would have none. No strings.” But for all our disadvantages, there are still things that all of us share. And the thing that unites us—all of us—is that we’re here, part of the Corps, ready to work together for the betterment of all. We’re here to help, to put peoples’ lives back together, to bring whole communities back from disaster. Because regardless of our backgrounds, we had all made it here. That’s a rock upon which we can build our service.
Andy Tisdel is spending a year in service as a member of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and blogging about his experiences therein. For more posts and information, please visit tisdelstirades.blogspot.com, where this post was first published.