November 24, 2017

Why your campus should consider a Multicultural Retreat

retreat-lake

Lake Minnewaska Trail — Minnewaska State Park, New York.
Photo by Doug Kerr.
Great friendships have started by the lake

A multicultural retreat is a structured activity which allows White and ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) students an opportunity to explore racial and cultural issues in a secluded setting that is free of major distractions.

Participants who generally do not know each other are asked to spend two to three days away from campus eating, rooming and working together. Participants are asked to submerge themselves in learning about ALANA cultures. Because of the time they are required to spend together, participants eventually ‘drop their guard’ and allow their ‘true’ feelings to surface. A seasoned facilitator will not only move this process along, s/he will also create an atmosphere where honest disclosure is expected.

During the retreat participants are able to discuss, debate, and contribute in ways that may help them discover, share, and broaden their awareness of themselves in relationship to the multicultural world at large. Activities, speakers and discussion groups focus on objectives which are designed to ensure that the experience participants are exposed to, challenge their beliefs, confront their values and require some type of follow up action.

A cultural retreat is designed to be informational and educational. Three aspects of culture are presented on each ALANA group that is featured. 1) The cultural contributions-music, dance, art, etc., 2) problems the group faces in contemporary American society, and 3) the group’s U.S. and world history. The intent is to provide participants a context in which to understand the issues impacting a particular ethnic group.

The retreat experience is not designed to be complacent. It is dynamic and at times confrontational. However, as a result of such discourse, a certain bonding often takes place between participants. A sense of community among the participants frequently occurs. This process of permitting oneself to be vulnerable and open to new ideas often gives one an insight that results in increased cultural awareness.

Comments like, “I had no idea…,” are common during and after the retreat. Even the free time serves an important purpose during the retreat because participants are required to spend half of it with someone of a different “racial” group. When you consider the cultural activities, ethnic speakers and the great outdoors, all these things contribute to making the retreat an effective human relations experience.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how retreats have transformed lives and led to long-term friendships. Here’s a letter I received from a participant many years ago.

Dear Mr. Taylor,

This was my first experience being involved in a cultural retreat. I’ve always been curious and respected other cultures than my own, but never really experienced it firsthand. I’ve never lived with, or even near, people whose culture was not white. I’ve been acquainted with people of other cultures only on occasion. I learned a lot over the weekend and feel that my values were strengthened, in regards to prejudice. I have always ‘stood up’ for our so-called ‘minorities’. I personally feel there are no minorities. As we learned, we are all one human race. I love to learn about people and find it was very important to learn about how other cultures live, communicate, believe, etc.

All cultures should be respected for all the ‘good’ they bring to our world. I think that if more people would shut their mouths and sit back and open their eyes and ears, they would see how much we are all ‘alike’, no matter what color we are. That is what I learned this past weekend. What we experienced was real and it made me think a lot about my own values and beliefs. Ignorance is the key weakness of the majority and it could be turned into awareness if everyone would only care. I felt very ignorant most of the weekend, knowing very little about the tests we were given. One thing I do know is that I intend to educate my children about other cultures than my own, and also to introduce them to children of other cultures to interact with. I received ‘no’ education in regards to other cultures in school, church or from my parents.

I think we have a lot of people to reach, but more and more people are becoming aware of the danger of prejudices. I have been telling a lot of people about my experience on the retreat and encouraging them to attend the (next) retreat. I feel that attitudes are so important when communicating to others. I intend to have a very positive attitude when it comes to talking to people about prejudices, discrimination, etc., emphasizing the fact that we are all ‘alike’, even more so than I have done before! I feel I have more confidence now.

Students spend part of their free canoeing and of course racing on the lake

Creston, BC. Photo by Richard Baer.
Nothing like a relaxing canoe ride to get participants to interact.

I think everyone had a great time too! I loved the great food, dancing and all the outdoors. It was a beautiful weekend all around. The speakers were really good… I met some truly great people, people who got along just fine because we were ourselves—no hang-ups, no tensions, no discrimination! It’s a good feeling to know that we all proved how much we are alike and I thank you for the opportunity to belong to that.

I think one of the speakers summed it up best when he said that if a force came from outer space, suddenly we would all become earthlings, one human race!

Crissy.

Although this particular letter was from a white participant, it is equally rewarding to hear how black participants learn to appreciate American Indian culture or other ethnic groups appreciate different cultural experiences. For the letter writer, the Cultural Retreat experience had a profound impact. Since I have observed this impact time and time again, I believe it’s important that the cultural retreat concept be shared. Perhaps one of the reasons why a retreat is so successful is that it creates a forum for communication. It allows people to interact in a flexible but structured environment in which they can be themselves.

The retreat gives people an opportunity to learn about other cultures by experiencing, discussing and sharing it firsthand. Cultural Retreats introduce participants to selected aspects of the experiences of ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) groups. They do not teach participants what it means to be African, Latino, Asian or American Indian, but rather provide exposure to that reality.

retreat-black-white hands

Diversity and Inclusion-it has to start somewhere. Photo by Kreireke.

Participants are engaged in sensitivity exercises, small group discussions and activities to accomplish discovery and sharing. Disagreement and confrontation are treated as a natural consequence of cross cultural interaction, almost as prerequisites to honest interaction. Participants are told to channel their anger at issues rather than individuals.

It is not uncommon for participants to question why they subjected themselves to this experience at the beginning of the retreat. Nor is it uncommon to hear comments like, ‘Do we really have to leave?’ at the close of the retreat.

It is probably obvious by now that I am sold on the whole idea of retreats. A group of caring but skeptical students assemble themselves to dialogue over some of the most sensitive issues our society faces. At first they are really hesitant about what they say, being careful not to offend, but the structured activities slowly force them to be honest, rather than tactful.

When their honesty is not viewed in a judgmental way then genuine communication is possible. Perhaps a weekend is not long enough for lasting change, but it is time enough to create a foundation for change. Besides if we are not the generation that confronts racism and ethnocentrism squarely, than we have done a disservice to future generations.

I hope you will consider hosting a retreat at your campus this year. This resource provides all of the information you’ll need. Best wishes for a successful and dynamic retreat.

 

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