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Memphis teens bridge black-white chasm at camp


MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Buried somewhere in America's ancient agony over race is this aching to start over, to keep it simple and to get it right. To be innocent. To be open. To be friends.

For seven days this summer, some Memphis teen-agers got that chance.

In a city as defined and divided by race as any in America, 38 high school students, black and white, lived, ate, worked, played and learned together as part of an unusual program called Bridge Builders.

They made it look easy. They made it seem ordinary. And when itwas over, they didn't want to say goodbye.

"Used to be every time I'd see a white person I'd say 'hello,' they'd say 'hello' and we'd just keep on walking," says Markell Newson, whose high school, Whitehaven, has 10 whites and 1,056 blacks. The way Newson figures it, whites didn't want to talk to him and he saw no reason to talk to them.

But those days, he says, are over now. "I'm going to change," he says. "I'm going to start communicating."

Which is precisely the point of Bridge Builders.

Founded in 1988 by Youth Service, an Episcopal social service agency in Memphis, Bridge Builders brings together high school studentsfrom the city's mostly black public and mostly white private schools for two years of leadership and human relations training that begins with a week together the summer between their sophomore and junior years.

There are other summer camps across the country devoted to bringing together people of different backgrounds. Most notably, the National Council of Christians and Jews has for 35 years run "Anytown" camps that teach teen-agers about cultural pluralism. But Bridge Builders is unusual in its ongoing efforts to develop the relationships kindled during the first summer.

For two years, the kids meet monthly, work on community service projects and reconvene for another camp the following summer.

The program was the brainchild of one of the leading women of Memphis, Rebecca Webb Wilson, whose father-in-law founded the Holiday Inn chain.

Ms. Wilson was worried that her children were going to come of age and prominence in a community where they really had no meaningful contact with blacks, who make up a majority of Memphis' inhabitants.

"I wanted my own children to have a chance to change their thinking and to come to it on their own. You can't preach it. They just have to experience it," says Ms. Wilson, whose two $l daughters went through the program. Now, she says, they have a sensitivity to race their older brother does not.

John Krosnes, Youth Service's director of development, says that when Ms. Wilson first broached the idea, he was among those who warned her that Memphis wasn't ready for black and white, male and female, all living together for a week under one roof.

Mary Taylor, a black secretary whose son Al is a Bridge Builder, says that despite the growth of a black middle class, whites in Memphis are "so used to blacks saying 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am" that they have difficulty dealing with them as peers or leaders.

Last year Willie Herenton was elected the city's first black mayor by 172 votes in an election that amounted to little more than a racial census.

Memphis is 54 percent black and the racial divide is reinforced by a huge black-white economic gap. Nearly half of black Memphians live in poverty. Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock. The city's infant mortality rate is the highest in the country.

Memphis is also the most obvious example of a city where whites deserted the public schools rather than integrate. While some whites have returned in recent years, the public schools remain 80 percent black.

The result is a city in which blacks and whites see each other but don't know each other.

"Most of those entering Bridge Builders never have had a relationship with someone of the opposite race," says Mr. Krosnes.

Bridge Builders doesn't seek to convert bigots. The 19 participating schools are asked to select good kids with leadership potential. The goal is to develop a rapport among young blacks and whites who in a generation will be running Memphis.

They are the cream, and most do not think they arrive with any racial baggage.

"I think they go into it with the idea they are not prejudiced; they think, 'I really like black people, I don't know any but I'm sure if I did I'd like them,' " Ms. Wilson says.

"I don't think I have a fear of blacks," says Ashley Abrahams on the first day of her week at Bridge Builders this summer. But Ashley, who is wearing a "Love God" T-shirt and goes to Briarcrest Christian High School, acknowledges race is not a big factor in her life. "I'm not faced with it that much in school or in church or in my neighborhood."

One of the purposes of Bridge Builders is to make these children comfortable talking about race, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination.

The week is a pastiche of human relations and leadership training. For example, each Bridge Builder prepares a speech to deliver atweek's end.

They also get Outward Bound-style adventure education, featuring games that build team spirit and stress everyone's interdependence. For example, blindfolded and listening for sound signals, they must lead each other past obstacles to safety.

There is never any obvious friction, but the blending together is a gradual, almost imperceptible process, a delicate accumulation of small moments.

There's Laura Baldree, who goes to almost all-white St. Agnes, calling her grandmother to tell her that a black girl had "called me sister."

There's Joan Self, a white St. Mary's student, and Wande Okunoren reaching out to find one another in their blindfolds.

"This Wande?"


"Hiya babe."

And then for a few moments there are Joan and Wande standing together, holding hands and swaying.

Bit by bit the meals become integrated. By week's end the solid blocs of black and white have given way to a mottled pattern of friendship.

At graduation practice Friday night, Markell Newson, the young man who had previously had little to do with whites, takes advantage of the moment when the Bridge Builders are supposed to congratulate one another to step over behind a girl named Garland Humphrey, the blondest of the blondes from Hutchison, the whitest, most socially elite prep school in Memphis.

Carefully, Markell, who is 6-foot-6, reaches down, gently scoops up Garland's long golden hair and holds it aloft for a long moment.

It is consistent with what is apparently an obsessive curiosity whites and blacks have about each other's hair -- all week these kids are asking each other permission to touch, rub and caress each other's hair. But it is a stunning image, one that in old Memphis might have ended badly. But no one particularly notices or cares.

The obvious question is how lasting an impact Bridge Builders has.

Vicki Newman, a child psychologist who helps run the camp, has just begun trying to develop some means to measure the program's long-term impact on the graduates.

Michael Kerns, an educational consultant whose daughter Tirzah began with Bridge Builders last summer, says he suspects the benefits of a program that lasts only a week in the summer and once a month thereafter to be "thin."

But, he figures, it can't hurt. "If it brings black and white students together to talk to each other and listen to each other and smell each other, it's got to do something for you."

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