The program's mission seems utopian, yet it is contagious.
A place where teenagers, as well as adults, can come to learn and understand experiences different from their own. A place where inclusion is paramount; where diversity and words used to communicate matter. A place where taboos surrounding discussions about hate, prejudice and stereotypes dissolve. This place is what Community Tampa Bay
"I would say this is the only program that does youth leadership with diversity education. And there's an expectation that students will return to their schools and communities, and take action," says Stacie Blake, executive director.
ANYTOWN was founded 21 years ago when the nonprofit Community Tampa Bay, now headquartered at 1499 Beach Drive SE in St. Petersburg, was still a field office under the National Conference for Community and Justice
. Even earlier, though, the agency was known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, focused on promoting interfaith dialogue.
Now geared toward addressing broader topics of social justice and youth empowerment, ANYTOWN brings delegates (high school students) and volunteers (adults and program graduates) together to develop the awareness and leadership traits necessary to end discrimination.
"What we find is that when they [delegates] have an opportunity to be in a safe space and have someone really ask them directly about some of these issues, about their school climate or their community, they do have a lot to say about it," Blake says. "The way we do this work, because we will talk about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality -- all of these things -- then youth are able to make a connection about oppression across the board."
She and her staff seek delegates in high school because "developmentally, that age group is generally able to talk about all those important aspects of their social identity, and able to name them."
The program holds two sessions, one beginning on June 29 and another on July 21, and is hosted at St. Pete's Eckerd College for five days and four nights. Each day, ANYTOWN is divided into four parts: dorms, dialogue groups, community time and workshops.
"One great success we've started to keep track of is, in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, less than half of the black males in high school graduate. The black males who come to ANYTOWN all graduate," Blake says.
Community Tampa Bay thinks those students discover how to reconnect with their schools after completing the program.
"They find a place where they fit," Blake continues. "They find a group of people who are gonna accept them as they are and want to see their ultimate success."
Tom Earl, an AmeriCorps VISTA program assistant, has been with the organization for two years. He ensures ANYTOWN graduates receive a year's worth of follow up.
"Follow up through monthly phone calls, monthly workshops, weekly youth groups and any other form of development we can come up with," Earl says. "Our goal is to develop lifelong inclusive leaders who end discrimination. And so, we need more than five days to do that.
In five days, we can significantly impact people's consciousness and their worldview, but we don't necessarily get all the time to get to skills."
Earl says the program is able to bridge conscious or subconscious bigotry, for example, with meaningful relationships.
"So if I think that all women belong in the kitchen, right? Let's say I think this, whether consciously or subconsciously, and now I'm in a dialogue group with women who I'm forming meaningful relationships with. And they may say things like, when I grow up, I actually don't ever want to cook in my life, and I want to be an artist or a rocket scientist. And then you have this cognitive dissonance," he says.
The technique is known as "cross-cultural interaction through dialogue." It builds community among delegates and volunteers by using substantial discussion to further the agency's vision of a world without hate.
This summer, more than 100 people applied to be ANYTOWN volunteers. And Blake said the number of submissions has doubled over the last few years.
Prior to being selected, hopefuls will attend volunteer training sessions -- crash courses on how the program operates, how to engage with the delegates and more. Ranging from ages 16 to 65, only 45 applicants are chosen. But according to Blake, the level of understanding and education in the community rises no matter what.
"I think people want to do it so much because it's so exciting to see someone change," she said.
Although there are many programs throughout the United States similar to ANYTOWN, Blake referred to Community Tampa Bay's as the model: "We have grown the program, strengthened it, and from what I can tell, ours is the one that really uses youth and community to lead the program. And that’s what makes it different."
Blake took over the organization in 2008. No stranger to nonprofits, she previously worked on issues involving battered women, immigrants and people who were tortured.
"The day I came here, every person knew the mission, said the mission and said why it was important to them personally. And I had never encountered that before," she says. "That every person involved knew the mission of the agency and why it mattered to them."
A firm belief in the work that ANYTOWN does, its motivational contagion, explains why program graduates keep returning to volunteer. One graduate has even recruited her child to be a part of ANYTOWN.
Nella Makdessi and Cet Mohamed-Moore first ventured into the program as delegates in 2003. They both revisited their social justice allies as counselors soon after, and continue to participate this way.
"ANYTOWN, for me, does kind of set my beliefs. It makes me feel like volunteering and advocacy should be part of your life," says Makdessi, who is involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters and the University of South Florida's Bulls Service Breaks.
In Makdessi's case, the program also allowed her to realize how much she enjoys interacting with youth. She credits switching her major and pursuing a master's degree in education from USF to ANYTOWN.
"I've been trying to speak to social justice issues through my art," says Mohamed-Moore, a film major at the Art Institute of Tampa. "ANYTOWN helped me concentrate my energy and find that voice to enumerate exactly what it was that I was trying to say about social issues. I was more of a 'me' supremacist before, but now I'm more of a 'we' supremacist."
Mohamed-Moore took what she learned from the program to a New York training workshop in January. Through a social work agency, she educated adults who work with youth about power dynamics and privilege.
"I'm branching out into other states now," she jokes.
Blake said Community Tampa Bay is in the process of fulfilling something similar, a big dream. The organization wants to obtain rights to the ANYTOWN trademark nationally.
"We want to publish the curriculum, so that we can make it possible to deliver ANYTOWN in other places, in other towns, in other states," she says. "We have a strong research base of the program, so we can say, with confidence, if you do all of this and follow the curriculum, these are the outcomes."
What would a world overrun with minds and bodies embracing inclusivity, liberated from discrimination, look like anyway? Blake recollected a comment made by a program graduate: No one knows.
"She said, 'none of us know what that looks like because none of us were ever there.' When there was no discrimination, and you were just accepted as you are. And that's why, when they're at ANYTOWN, we work so hard to build the closest thing to that that we can by such a diverse staff, working so hard on language, such a diverse delegate group. But none of us really know," Blake says.
Meaghan Habuda is a summer intern for 83 Degrees. She is completing her bachelor's degree in journalism and media studies at USF St. Petersburg with a women's and gender studies minor from USF Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.