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On a chilly November afternoon, I stared past the hazy wheat fields of the frozen western Nebraska landscape, pondering the four days that lay ahead of me, unaware that those four days were going to change my life. I shifted awkwardly in my uncomfortable seat, the musty odor of the bus penetrating my senses. I couldn’t help but wonder if IncluCity was nothing more than an excuse to leave the city for a couple of days. As I stepped off the bus into the bitter fall wind, I honestly had no idea what to expect.
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From what I had heard, IncluCity was a sort of “kumbaya” experience focusing on diversity, prejudice, and acceptance for Omaha area high schoolers lead by the Conference for Inclusive Communities. My friends who had attended IncluCity said that it was nothing special: somewhat eye opening, but mostly stories about people’s feelings. However, one friend returned completely changed; he explained that the camp had totally altered his way of thinking. Intrigued by this contrast, I talked to my counselor and signed up.
For the next few months, up until about a week before the camp, I had completely forgotten about IncluCity. As camp grew closer, I was more enthused about the fact that I was missing a calculus test than I was about attending. The day of the departure, my transformed friend encouraged me to put effort into the discussions and activities that lay ahead of me: “You’ll get as much out of it as you put in to it,” he said. I shrugged off his words, only remembering them as I entered the slightly dilapidated main facility of the Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland.
As soon as it began, I felt something special in the air. The staff and campers radiated acceptance, and the feeling that came over me was something I had never experienced before. It was a beautiful place to be; people from all walks of life – rich and poor, gay and straight, Caucasian and Arabic – were completely comfortable with one another. Everyone felt free to be the person they truly wanted to be. The heterogeneous assortment of people was a perfect backdrop for the encouragement of celebrating and accepting diversity.
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Activities such as the “Culture Walk” and “Privilege Ladder” broke down certain biases I held. I began to become aware of the suffering my fellow campers endured because of sexism, racism, and heterosexism. As I noticed the cultural differences during the walk, my prejudices began to melt away. I felt a surge of unity with the group; despite our dichotomy, we were bonding together as one. In the privilege ladder, I felt a burning sense of shame when I saw the separation between some of the other delegates and myself, embarrassed that I was so fortunate in comparison to them.
I learned as much from the people attending the camp as I did from the seminars with the counselors. The late night discussions with my cabin mates – a mix of African-Americans, Asians, and Caucasians – about their personal experiences, hardships, joys, and struggles opened my eyes to a completely different world that I knew existed but preferred not to think about. Although the amenities were sub-par and the food less than satisfying, the slow but exciting change I began to feel inside myself was more than enough to compensate for any inconveniences.
I had never appreciated how lucky I was before realizing the things some delegates had to go through on a day-to-day basis. I finally saw how people of other races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences really felt when they were victimized by discrimination. Some hardships I could relate to; others I could only imagine. During one particularly emotional dialogue, a transgender boy related how he had contemplated suicide after the relentless taunting he received at school. Every ounce of suffering he endured, every hate-filled slur he received, every sleepless night he spent trying to feel like a girl was conveyed lucidly through the heartbreak of his uncontrollable sobs. As I lay in bed that night, I finally realized the changes I needed to make in my life. How many times had I been disrespectful to, made fun of, or hurt people because they were different? A haunting specter of regret hung over me, and I knew the only way to atone for my mistakes was to fully embrace that rising change I was feeling.
Before, I had some sensibility towards others different from myself – but what I saw at IncluCity broke down the prison walls that suppressed my desire to make a difference. I stopped using words like “gay”, “homo”, and “retarded” because I finally realized the real connotations these words had.
I returned to school and began to seek out people who shared my new perspectives. My friend who had praised the program so highly has become one of my closest companions. I became a counselor at the camp, an intern with the Conference for Inclusive Communities, and a co-president of my school’s diversity club. I champion the new perspectives I have gained, and encourage others to discover what I discovered. The writer Maria Robinson once said, “nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending”. This mindset has helped me forget my mistakes and begin a new life of open-mindedness. Although I feel embarrassed by my former self, the changes that I made have stuck and carried over into every facet of my life.
As I took my first step on to the bus to return back to school and the rest of my life, I didn’t seem to mind the smelly upholstery or the cramped seats. It was at that moment I realized choosing to attend IncluCity was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The experience truly changed how I treat others and how I view the world.
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