There were sing-alongs by the fire, a barbecue lunch and bunking in cabins overnight, but the real reason more than 100 Gardena High School students boarded buses for Camp Max Straus in Glendale last week was far more serious than the usual camp fare.
Instead of scary ghost stories by firelight, the dialogue was about reality--about race, about prejudice, about cultural problems not normally aired in the classroom.
A frank and often emotional discussion about the differences among them brought students, faculty and parents to the rustic retreat at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Their goal was a start toward understanding among the school's many races and cultures.
During their stay, the students were challenged, provoked, angered and prodded to the brink of tears.
A few saw the experience as the beginning of a metamorphosis.
"It's so emotional it could change your whole life, your whole outlook, in two days," said junior Connie Alvarez. "I didn't think that was possible."
Hesitant when first confronted with the hard issues they had come to discuss, some students fidgeted; a few others joked and whispered among themselves. But by the end of the two-day Project Brotherhood/Sisterhood conference, much of the evasiveness and restlessness had faded, replaced by a new willingness among students and faculty to talk.
"The reason I came here is I wanted to find out if I'm a racist, if I'm a bigot," said 10th-grader Felicia Allen, challenging her classmates to ask themselves the same question.
"I feel close to blacks, but I don't really speak to them," said Alvarez, adding that she wanted to cross that barrier.
"Racism is a big issue, it really is," said senior Melinda Frank. "Prejudice is at Gardena High School--it's at every school; it's everywhere. It's not really talked about, but it's there."
There were cultural as well as racial issues, including assimilation.
Korean-born junior Yong Kim, whose family moved to the United States after he finished the first grade, mentioned the conflict teen-agers can face in holding onto their cultural heritage while maintaining an American point of view. "In our house the Korean culture is totally intact," said Kim, "but I feel more American."
Said Carilyn King-Gorman, one of two parents who attended the camp: "It's good to get the kids together in a setting like this. Usually, they mostly socialize in their own (racial) group."
The plethora of cultural issues is not surprising among a student population as ethnically diverse and shifting as Gardena's. According to Principal Tamotsu Ikeda, about 35% of the students are black, 35% Latino, 24% Asian-American and 6% Anglo. The Latino and black populations have been increasing gradually while the number of Asian-American students is slowly declining, he said.
The camp is sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a nonprofit organization seeking to promote racial and cultural understanding. The project is supported by a $173,000 grant from the Herb Alpert Foundation.
The first Project Brotherhood/Sisterhood camp was held in 1986 for students from San Gabriel High School, at the request of a school dean who approached the Christian-Jewish conference with the idea after ethnic confrontations took place at that school. This year, in addition to Gardena High School, Santa Monica High and Alhambra High were added to the program.
Because Gardena administrators had expressed an interest in beginning a human relations program dealing with cultural issues, Los Angeles Unified School District officials nominated the school for the program last year, said Dick Browning, support services administrator for the senior high school district. A second district school, Manual Arts High in Los Angeles, was added this year, he said.
Ethnically diverse Gardena High was a good selection for the program, according to National Conference of Christians and Jews program director Glen Poling, because the school has "the racial mix, and there is some level of tension among those populations on campus."
At Gardena, and at other high schools where changes in the racial composition have been even greater, there have been tense relations between ethnic groups--and even within ethnic groups--in recent years. In 1987, for example, there were fights between Japanese-American and Korean-American students, and other groups have had minor clashes, though administrators say those problems are no longer in evidence.
The first phase of Gardena's program began last year when faculty members were given lesson plans on various cultures and encouraged to incorporate the plans into their teaching curricula, said Assistant Principal Patricia Ashby.