Trevon Burrow talked of the snide comments people would make deriding his hair and sexual orientation.
“When someone would ask me questions like ‘How is your hair like that?’ or ‘Can I touch your hair?’ or ‘If you’re bisexual, does that mean you like one more than the other?’ — I’ve never really been able to understand how they cannot get why that’s offensive; how they can’t understand what it would be like to have that used against you and be something that’s so annoying,” said Burrow, a 17-year-old who is part of Miami’s black LGBTQ community.
Burrow was one of nearly 50 teens who recently attended a weeklong, overnight program at St. Thomas University known as Camp MetroTown, which taught them about just how painful comments like these can be. MCCJ, a nonprofit dedicated to wiping out religious, racial and ethnic intolerance, sponsored the camp, as it has since 2011.
“Really when it comes down to it, we’re about creating an inclusive community,” said Roberta Shevin, executive director of MCCJ. “This becomes a model for what an inclusive community can be: all kinds of people living together peacefully — being respected and appreciated.”
During their stay, each student would receive daily notes of encouragement that were dropped into envelopes decorated with their names and hung in the room where the students congregated. The students couldn’t open the square oversized envelopes until the last day of camp. When they did, they found notes applauding their contributions, big or small, mementos they could take home and hold dear when times get tough.
“What I took away from MetroTown is having my own story and sharing it with people,” said a 17-year-old transgender delegate who calls himself Ross McCarthy. “I had breakdowns, and I had freakouts and stuff sharing my story. Just being able to use my experience to help other people grow is something really impactful for me.”
The campers represented varying backgrounds, including socioeconomic status. The idea was to mix the students so that all sides of the economic spectrum could learn from each other, opening their minds to someone different from them. That credo applied, too, to sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and race.
After coming here, you realize that the small things, the little things, whether it’s saying things you shouldn’t as a joke, or whether it’s saying hurtful things subconsciously when you first meet someone,’ do really matter.
Esther Lopez, a 17-year-old delegate to Camp MetroTown
Often, the campers encountered people they never would have within their communities. MetroTown runs discussions, simulations, group exercises and brings in guest speakers.
To address immigration, the delegates played a modified version of Monopoly in which the students followed a path with instructions split between two assigned roles: documented and undocumented. The goal was to reach the path’s end, but as many students realized, being undocumented complicated the process.
One of the guests, Carson Osberg, a staff attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice, an immigration rights group, attested to the difficulty.
Immigration “is an issue that is, unless you’ve lived it, it’s really hard to understand how complicated our system is [or] how unfair it can be,” Osberg said. “I think being able to hear from someone who lived the system, who lived through it, is eye-opening.”
Osberg was referring to Jenson “Mentor” Cox, a Bahamian motivational speaker and poet. He came to America when he was young. Years later, he realized he was undocumented. He became a U.S. citizen last year after a lengthy and difficult process.
“Their reactions and the looks on their faces and the way they were … all of that kind of shows me that they truly respected what I’ve gone through,” he said.
After listening to the speakers and learning of each other’s experiences, many of the campers found themselves challenging old perceptions.
Esther Lopez, a 17-year-old delegate, says she will be more mindful of her behavior and will no longer be a silent bystander to prejudice.
“After coming here, you realize that the small things, the little things, whether it’s saying things you shouldn’t as a joke, or whether it’s saying hurtful things subconsciously when you first meet someone,” do really matter.
“It’s things like that you knew you did, but you didn’t realize the effects it had on both you and the person,” Lopez said.
Midway through the immigration presentations, the campers and advisors burst into song, showing solidarity with the speakers. The song’s lyrics — embodying MetroTown’s mission — were plastered on the walls with the campers’ envelopes:
We call it fun, but you may call it madness.
Stay here with us, and you’ll forget your sadness.
Happy campers are we, having fun in Miami
And when you are gone, you’ll remember our song.
We call it
Camp MetroTown, Camp MetroTown
Camp MetroTown, Camp MetroTown