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‘AnyTown’ Summer Program Celebrates 30th Year Encouraging Inclusion

posters hang on a wall
Jacob Wentz
WUSF Public Media
Participants at ANYTOWN work on various projects that encourage them to think about ways in which discrimination manifests itself in society.

The free summer program for Tampa Bay area high school students facilitates conversations about identity, discrimination, and inclusivity.

At ANYTOWN, participants started a recent morning in a St. Petersburg church meeting room with high-energy songs and chants.

“From nation to nation, we gonna end discrimination!” the group sings. “ANYTOWN, ANYTOWN, yellow, black, white, red, or brown, it makes a difference when you come down, ANYTOWN!”

The program unites high school students of all backgrounds around a common objective: building a culturally diverse and inclusive community.

It’s organized by the non-profit group Community Tampa Bay, and this summer marks its 30th year.

“The way we structure our program, it's very experiential,” said Sam Obeid, program director of Community Tampa Bay. “We want (students) to share space with us, not come into our space and feel like strangers. With us, it’s a very collaborative, circular process.”

students sit in a circle
Jacob Wentz
WUSF Public Media
After an energized session of singing and chanting, students take a moment to reflect on things happening in their lives.

The program is centered around six main goals, including cross-cultural interaction, identity, dialogue, advocacy, leadership, and recognizing the impact of discrimination.

But the young adults who participate in the program influence how each goal is accomplished.

“Everybody's bringing their own experiences and perspectives of what they're experiencing in the world with them to ANYTOWN,” said Tammy Briant Spratling, Community Tampa Bay CEO. “So that definitely plays out in terms of the dialogue and the conversations about their recent experiences and the things that they're processing.”

Those things include events that dominated the headlines for the last year or so.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted existing health inequalities, and calls for racial justice received more attention following the murder of George Floyd.

Participants’ feelings about these issues are reflected in the way they talk to each other about discrimination during this summer’s session.

“You will find that our newer workshops are a lot more intersectional, they're evolved,” Obeid said. “A lot more of the curriculum is for our young humans to be able to activate now. You can't have curriculum that is from the 1970s in 2021.”

“Our young humans are always ready for the conversation, it's just up to us to be able to put the best material forward. I think we have very successfully done that in 2021.”

The way the program is being held has also been affected by the pandemic.

Typically, ANYTOWN begins each summer with an intensive five-day, four-night residential program at a local college or university. This year, it is a two-day non-residential program.

Flags flying at a church
Jacob Wentz
WUSF Public Media
Inclusive flags flew outside of ANYTOWN's meeting space, which was located inside of the Allendale Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.

“In order to be able to do that program without watering it down, or cramming all of the information from five days into these two days, we had to recreate and rethink what that curriculum looks like,” Obeid said.

“And a lot of that was influenced very much by what is happening in the world right now.”

Despite the challenges, the program continues to provide participants with tools to combat discrimination and deepen their understanding of themselves.

In surveys conducted by the organization, 100% of participants said that they experienced meaningful cross-cultural interactions, 96% increased their comfort and ability to facilitate dialogue, 93% gained a stronger sense of social identity, and 98% gained skills to engage in service, advocacy, or leadership in schools or communities promoting inclusion.

“Many of our young humans who came in the morning who barely said a word couldn't stop talking by the end of the day,” Obeid said. “They interacted so well with each other; they were willing to be vulnerable; they were willing to be there with us in that vulnerability, in having those difficult conversations about social justice.”

“Because this is a new program, I was hoping that we would be able to see some piece of that by the end of day two. Under no circumstances did I imagine that we would see such a significant piece of that by the end of day one.”

ANYTOWN is hosting two more summer sessions in July. The first is for Pinellas County students only, and will take place on July 12-13; the second is for students outside of Pinellas County and will take place on July 19-20.

For more information, and to enroll in the free program, visit Community Tampa Bay’s webpage.

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.
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