Experiment in experiential learning about racism

Volunteering in Russia – a great experience to remember
SRTRC Co-ordinator Garrett Mullan


I spent two weeks at the Sodrujestvo Intercultural Summer Camp just outside the city of Cheboxary 600km east of Moscow.  The setting was idyllic, an old camp in dense forest at the bank of the river Volga.  The facilities were basic with one shower for the entire camp and holes in the ground for toilets, but such trifles did not concern the children attending.  They had great fun and the camp was an experience to remember.


Cheboxary is a provincial city and although Chuvashia has a long and rich history, not so many foreigners visit.  That’s why there not a lot of possibilities for youngsters to meet other cultures and have international friends.  Sodrujestvo is trying to fill that gap.


The project is the brainchild of local English language teacher Alexandra Philippova, who set up Sodrujestvo in 2003.  Now driven by a team of volunteers Sodrujestvo has a number of projects including a partnership with a local orphanage, an ecology project, language classes and works in general to promote the idea of active citizenship on the part of young people.  The camp was attended by 30 young people who were either living in Cheboksary or had relatives in the area and was supported by a team of both local Russian and six foreign volunteers.


I was interested to come to the camp because my own work involves supporting intercultural programmes in Ireland.  A typical day at the camp started at 8am with morning exercises followed by 9am breakfast with lessons at 10am. Lessons included English for beginners, intermediate and advanced; Polish; Slovenian, French and Russian for me on occasion.  Other activities included country presentations.  The foreign volunteers gave presentations of Poland, Ukraine, Slovenia, Belgium and in my case Ireland.


Each day was packed with activities from strategy games in the woods to master classes in bracelet making and from Polish dancing to something called Belgian dancing as well as football, Gaelic football and volleyball.  There were also interesting theme games such as bureaucracy and stock exchange. 


In keeping with the values of the organisation, children were asked to produce theme topic presentations during the camp.  There were no powerpoints or long speeches involved in these presentations. The presentations were given through games and activity. Topics included a presentation on astronomy, water, survival, racism and volunteering. 


Presentation on Racism-


On the Monday evening participants in the theme presentation working group agreed the plan and procedure for presenting the topic of racism to the camp.  The presentation would consist of a number of activities whereby camp participants and counsellors would experience discrimination in the course of usual routines on the following morning. 


Participants got very enthusiastic in that by the end of the evening every camp participant and counsellor had either a black, red, green or yellow star on their arm.  The presentation group allocated who would receive different colour stars.  Those with black stars would be the group who would experience most discrimination in the activities.  Those with red stars would receive priviliges. 


In order to prepare for emotional upset and to ensure cooperation, those in the preparation group were assigned to each of the groups.  Further those who were strong characters were placed in the black star group, while younger and seemingly more vulnerable children were allocated with the red star. 


On Tuesday morning everyone was woken up and invited to a meeting to explain a few changes.  From 8:15am morning exercises would take place as normal but those with a red star would be exempt and could stay in bed until breakfast at 9am.  Further in the breakfast queue, those with black, yellow and green stars had to queue behind those with red stars.  Following breakfast the usual morning clean up routine saw those with black stars cope with more duties while those with red were exempt from the clean up. 


Morning lessons were replaced by a participatory game called ‘bureaucracy’.  Participants were given no indication in all this time that they were participating in the presentation of Racism theme topic.  Camp counsellor Sasha announced to the children that in everyday life people needed certain documents to function and advised the children that they had to get approval for these documents.  Children were asked to get a passport, tax number, foreign visa, bank account, library account.  They could also get a marriage certificate. 


The preparation group installed bias whereby those with red stars had easier access and less difficulty with bureaucracy and those with black stars and other colours were treated with indifference or contempt.  Alternatively children could find themselves a marriage partner of any colour.  This in turn saw the bureaucracy treatment change although the children were none the wiser. 


Those with red stars found no difficulty obtaining signatures from the various bureaucrats.  Those with yellow and green had some difficulty.  For example, they might be referred to another office to get that signature.  Those with black stars found themselves queueing up two and three times over presenting the same forms for signature.  Some bureaucrats extracted gifts from children as bribes in return for signature approval.  Some devious ‘officials’ had a nice variety of sweets on the games conclusion.


The game bureaucracy lasted for one hour.  Discrimination was part of the experience for those at the camp for a period of three hours in total from getting up through breakfast and then in the game of bureaucracy.  From 11-11:30am the game concluded and all participants were invited to comment on the experiences. 




‘I didn’t like how those were not getting priviliges became violent’


‘It was very difficult getting my tax number, passport, visa, bank account but I am happy that finally I got married’.


‘We had no chance’


‘It wasn’t fair.  We didn’t have to do exercises and cleaning.  The others got angry and blamed us.  There was division’.






It is true that in the game of bureaucracy, there was an attempt to give those with red stars preferential access for passports much to the chagrin of others in a long queue.  When this was attempted there was a rush for the ‘passport office’ and one or two fell over. No one was hurt, but this does give an indication as to how emotionally engaged the young people became.  In the discussion young people described their feelings of injustice and discrimination as unfair, frustrating and cause for anger. 


This experience was then linked so as to encourage empathy with those who experience discrimination in real life and with real life bureaucracies.  They are discriminated against because of colour, nationality and religion.  The children came up with examples of racism in Cheboksary.  It is experienced by muslims, people from the Caucasus, Roma and others. 


It was interesting that even though those with red stars were given privileges most of the group were reluctant to accept the privileges and despite encouragement otherwise two of the participants carried out morning cleaning duties alongside the other groups.  This was no doubt because in their lives and at all other times in the camp, values such as fairness and justice were promoted.  This activity therefore caused resistence against injustice.  Incidentally, there was one other game which became physically excessive, this was the game Stock Exchange.





The experience has given me inspiration with regard to not only going back to volunteer again in 2010 but to organise a similar camp in Ireland.  The idea is to host an Intercultural Residential camp for children of similar age 9-15 years at a venue in Ireland.   Since getting back to Dublin and raising this idea, a number of people think that children in Ireland would be not interested or too materialistic to engage.  I don’t believe that. Do you?  Let’s find out!




www.sodvo.ru for more information about Sodrujestvo 

www.vsi.ie for more information about volunteering opportunities
To contact me with regard to organising a similar camp possibly involving Russian volunteers and children coming to Ireland: info@theredcard.ie


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