Tulsa youth summit encourages empathy

Posted Nov 22, 2016
Youth participate in the Acceptance Youth Summit at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo: Trinity Episcopal Church

Youth participate in the Acceptance Youth Summit at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo: Trinity Episcopal Church

[Trinity Episcopal Church] This year has seen unrest and social divides brought to the forefront of the national news.  With the many conflicting and contradictory viewpoints, the clergy and staff at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, noticed that young people were ill-equipped for informed participation in these conversations.  With that in mind, the Acceptance Youth Summit was conceived.

The day-long workshop for young people in sixth through eighth grades was designed to equip youth with the skills to be advocates for the marginalized – to be “upstanders” rather than bystanders.  “We wanted to equip youth of all backgrounds, races, cultures, religions and socio-economic backgrounds with the skills needed to have civil discourse and to move through life aware of their own roles in it.  To do that, we needed to equip them with the language required to understand different viewpoints, and the emotional wherewithal to put themselves in others’ shoes.  Empathy is a crucial skill that dramatically improves interpersonal relations, and that was key to our program.” said Hannah Middlebrook, Trinity’s director of communication and volunteers.

The day consisted of large group discussions on the vocabulary of bigotry, oppression and racism, and equally, what it means to be an ally and an upstander. Breakout sessions on racism in the criminal justice system, LGBTQ issues and religious intolerance allowed the participants an opportunity to discuss specific issues in small groups with a facilitator who handles this topic professionally.

“We partnered with the Public Defender’s Office, the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice and Youth Services of Tulsa to ensure our youth had the benefit of experts in these fields.  Their participation was invaluable in bringing real world experiences to life for these youth and helping them to understand their positions in making positive change in the community,” said Middlebrook.

The culmination of the day was a privilege walk in which youth were asked to examine their own experiences.  Youth took a step forward or backward according to their answers to questions such as “I am easily able to find people with my skin color on greeting cards?” and “I am sometimes afraid to show affection to my partner in public?” Naturally, some youth ended near the front of the room while others found themselves further back.  Both groups – the “more privileged” and the “less privileged” – debriefed separately with a skilled adult to process their positions in society.  The discussion amongst the less privileged children centered on the idea that they are in these positions because of the constructs of society and that knowledge of that gives them the power to change it.  In their debriefing, the more privileged children were encouraged not to feel guilty about their positions but to use them for good – to reach back and pull the less fortunate forward and to fight for the rights of others.

Adults and youth, alike, were moved by the youth summit.  “It was really good,” said 13-year-old Gabriel Shaw. “I got to think about things in ways I hadn’t thought about them before.  I learned that I am already and ally to some people but that there are other people I hadn’t even thought about who need allies, too.”

Volunteer Ivana O’Brien added, “I loved seeing the kiddos embrace the message!”

“Our hope is that some eyes were opened,” said Middlebrook.  “It was truly powerful to see these young people from so many different backgrounds coming together.  Starting the day as strangers from all walks of life and ending as friends with a common purpose.”