These days, there’s a camp for everything: theater, football, Harry Potter. At University of Wisconsin-Green Bay this summer, a group of teenagers and volunteers decided they wanted to dedicate a week of their lives to something else: diversity and leadership.
Almost two dozen high school students and volunteers came from across Wisconsin for the inaugural Diversity Leadership Institute. They sit at long tables inside a high-tech classroom. Each of them grew up in pretty different environments.
There’s Isabella Dippel from Door County. She’s going to be a sophomore in high school. “Sturgeon Bay isn’t super diverse,” she said.
Another camper is Michael Williams, who’s going to be a junior at Preble High School. He lives in Green Bay, but grew up in Chicago.
“I really went to an all-black school from K-8,” said Williams. “So when I came to Green Bay it was pretty weird because it was my first time being around majority white.”
Despite their different backgrounds, Dippel and Williams came to the camp for similar reasons. They want to understand one another better.
“It’s going to help me to develop and learn how to talk to different races, I guess,” said Williams.
Dippel adds, “Communication is key. If we can start to listen to each other’s perspectives and be more open and look for bits of ourselves in other people and see what we have in common.”
While learning about other cultures, they’re also sharpening their leadership skills.
“A lot of people project me as a leader, but I just go with the flow,” said Williams. “So, I want to put strength to my leadership and engage with people.”
“I think there’s a lot of people out there who think, ‘Oh you’re a teenager, what can you do? You’re always glued to your phone.’ But I feel like I kind of want to prove that we can do anything. I want to change the world, I guess,” said Dippel.
While the camp counselors have an agenda, the students are driving the conversation this morning. They’re talking about whether or not black people feel accepted in different Wisconsin communities. People bring up times they’ve experienced or witnessed overt racism, mention how it can be difficult to find certain beauty products, and how some people glorify the hood.
Dexter Knutson, who also grew up in Chicago and is going to be a senior at Green Bay West, raises his hand. He asks the African-American adults in the room how long it took them to feel comfortable in Wisconsin after moving to the state.
The conversation slowly shifts into a quasi-motivational speech. The counselors encourage the campers to step up and be leaders in their communities, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
“When it comes to issues of diversity and leadership, which are some of the most critical skill sets that our kids need for the 21st century, there’s no summer learning. So that’s one of the real catalysts of this conference,” said Moore. “I want to work with kids that want to make things happen. Change some things for the lives of people in the thousands, if not millions.”
The way people talk about identity is changing rapidly. Moore says he wants the students to be respectful, comfortable, and confidant when they talk about power and privilege…and they have to do it in-person.
“This is a unique camp in that there are no cell phones allowed all week long for kids. So, they’re learning to build relationships, have conversations, play games, interact with people without technological interference,” said Moore.
By the end of the week at the Diversity Leadership Institute, the students have a lot to reflect on.
Michael Williams says he feels like a stronger leader. Next school year, he says he’ll make more of an effort to connect with people outside of his football team.
“It helped me develop from not just [talking with] the athletic people, but all types of people,” said Williams. “Learn where other people are coming from, understand [them], and be a leader. It’s not all about commanding people. You can just listen, take in and hear people out.”
Isabella Dippel says it was great hearing how fellow students viewed the world differently than her.
“This week it was really refreshing for me because we got to talk about real issues without skirting around it or without it being a battle,” said Dippel. “We had a great talk about the LGBTQ+ community, we talked about mental health issues, feminism, racism.”
Dexter Knutson says talking about those different topics has made him look at diversity in a whole new light.
“I think I definitely have a different perspective on what it’s like to be white. What it’s like to walk in other people’s shoes,” said Knutson. “I listened to other people’s stories, asked questions, just to get a better understanding of what they’re going through.”
And when he starts school in the fall, Knutson says he’s going to talk with his principal about starting a diversity leadership group that focuses on community service.