|Rich Dutra-St. John
and Yvonne St. John-Dutra are the founders of Challenge Day.
For many people Hawaiis island of Oahu conjures up the
image of a relaxing vacation or a stunning, tropical paradise. But not for everyone.
Intense gang rivalry between Samoan and Filipino students was
boiling on Oahu. Fights, beatings, and other acts of violence between the two groups had
made fear a part of everyday life for many young people and it had infected their schools.
School officials decided to bring in the team from Challenge Day,
a multi-faceted day-long program of activities, exercises, discussion, and small and large
group sharing aimed at breaking down fear, anger, and violence. Challenge Day leaders
proceeded to work with more than 100 students including the gang members and, as the day
progressed, an environment of safety and acceptance was slowly, skillfully created.
Students and adults together learned how and why people hurt each other, and themselves,
unconsciously continuing the destructive behavior and way of thinking that virtually all
of us have learned from childhood. They began to realize that they, like most people,
unnecessarily accept fear, anger, and violence as "normal".
During Challenge Day, when
participants feel physically and emotionally safe, they are encouraged tell their
the truth about how they really feel, often releasing torrents of hurt
feelings. Many times there are tears, but these are tears of relief, acknowledgement, and
healing. As the Challenge Day program continued that day on Oahu, young people held each
other, cried, and said they were sorry to one another. Nearly all who had begun the day as
enemies were ending the day making amends.
Several months passed. One of the Oahu school administrators
attending a Challenge Day faculty training on one of the other Islands stood to speak. Her
eyes filled with tears and voice choked with grateful emotion as she told the participants
about a young man who had been a leader in the gang violence. Although he had a long,
ongoing history of truancy, since the Challenge Day he had not missed a day of school. He
had always been a charismatic leader but now, rather than leading others to fight and
hate, he was all about teaching love and unity. She said she had witnessed a miracle.
"Peace on earth is possible
"I live every day in miracles," exclaims Yvonne St.
John-Dutra, who along with her husband, Rich, started Challenge Day in 1987. "To
watch a room filled with up to two hundred kids, who may or may not know each other, who
judge, stereotype, even hate each other
and then watch it transform completely in a
few hours to a place of compassion and love
I know without a doubt that peace on
earth is possible. I see it happen every day!"
When Rich and Yvonne began Challenge Day in 1987, they were pioneers in this
approach, with no word of mouth to bring their program to more schools. Schools were
reluctant to try their new program. But when a teen who had been deeply affected by a
Challenge Day wrote about how profound his experience was, it was published in the book Chicken
Soup for the Teenage Soul. More and more schools began to call. Following the tragic
violence at Columbine High School, in April of 1999 Yvonne and Rich were asked to bring
the Challenge Day program to the greater Denver area. In the fall of 2000 a film
documentary entitled Teen Files:Survivng High School, which they had helped
develop, aired. That school year, 2000-2001, Challenge Day doubled the number of schools
it had served the previous year. For the 2001-2002 school year the number has doubled
again. Since its inception Challenge Day programs have been presented to 350 schools in 14
states. Their all-day, seven hour program has touched more than 200,000 students. One to
two hour school assemblies have reached 300,000 more. For many years the programs
founders were the only Challenge Day leaders -- now there are nine.
Understanding Social Oppression
When Yvonne and Rich St. John-Dutra met and fell in love in the East
Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area both had been working with teens and addiction
programs. They also had in common a mutual frustration that their intervention efforts
were always aimed at a person after they were in crisis, after they "hit
bottom", after hurting themselves and others.
"We were tired of dealing with only symptoms,"
explains Yvonne. "We thought, What would it be like to create something
that helps people
before the crisis happens? What actually causes
the hurt that people then (try) to "numb out"?
The answer involves understanding something we experience every day
in different ways. Many people believe it is "just the way things are".
Its called social oppression. If you have ever been harassed, hurtfully
teased, or felt part of an "out group" in any environment, you know what it is
and how it feels. Particular groups, be they social, racial, gender, ethnic, or political
have power over other groups. What happens to those who have lesser power? How do those
people or groups act out? How do we separate from one another? In other words, what are
the stories we tell, what stereotypes do we construct or simply accept, to convince
ourselves that they are so different from us and therefore, it is
acceptable, even justified, to treat them with contempt - even violence? These are the
issues of social oppression.
"Were in the business of breaking down the walls that
separate people," says Benjamin Schick of Challenge Day. "We are able to create
an environment where people get a sense of what its like to be around others who are
compassionate and accepting and loving. The amazing thing about human beings that we have
found over and over again is that a child
even an adult
who has never really
been in a safe environment before, in the course of the day, are able to have that
experience (of emotional safety and acceptance). And after just one day of that, even
after a lifetime of hurt, once they have had that experience, its very hard to go
"I get teased every day
At the start of a Challenge Day in Sacramento, Yvonne sat down
casually with some students and said, "Do you know any of these kids? Tell me about
"Thats Susan," one
of them pointed. Susan was a special education student with developmental disabilities,
perhaps Downs Syndrome. "We dont like her."
"Why? asked Yvonne.
"I dont know, everybody just teases her."
Susans mother happened to be there that day to help in her
daughters small group because she needed extra assitance. As the day progressed, the
participants gathered in one large circle and were encouraged to share "their
Truth", their true feelings. Susan stood up and said slowly and clearly, "I get
teased every single day and I want it to stop!"
Yvonne addressed the entire group, saying, "If any of you have
ever hurt Susan, you have an opportunity now to make amends. If you feel sorry and are
committed to never do it again, Id love for you to come look her in the eyes and
tell her that." One by one, every one of the150 kids in the room got up and stood in
line. One at a time, many through tears said, "Im sorry, Susan." Everyone
had been tormenting and teasing her! These kids really understood what they had
been doing to her. Her mother sent Yvonne a card that read, "Ill never be able
to thank you enough
my daughters life changed forever."
Fear is the biggest challenge
According to St. John-Dutra, Challenge Days biggest challenge
of all has proven to be fear. And the fears are many. Schools may fear students displaying
strong emotions. When kids open up about their true feelings, including their hurts, there
are tears in the room and a roomful of teenagers in tears makes many a school
administrator afraid of the potential problems.
Schools may fear that they dont have the resources needed to
deal with the issues which might be found if students feel safe enough to disclose their
hurt. When kids feel safe speaking out, some will undoubtedly say, Im being
harassed every day at school. Schools may not want to know, truly, how many of the
girls are being sexually harassed, or that racism might exist intensely in every classroom
because it could overwhelm their ability to carry on "business as usual".
The good news, echo both Yvonne and CD's director, Ben Schick, is
that as much fear and resistance as people have to emotions, lack of resources, change, or
anything else, theres just no denying the power of what happens to people in the
room during a Challenge Day.
Lives are Changed
Violence had broken out in a northern California town between two
rival kids gangs, the Reds and the Blues. Someone from the Blues had killed one of the
kids in the Red group. "The school," recalls Yvonne, "brought us in to do a
Challenge Day. We had the main gang leaders, kids from the school, police, counselors,
everybody was watching to see what we could do because they
hadnt been able to do anything to stop the violence."
"Honestly," Yvonne admits, "I didnt know if it
would work. I was praying that a miracle would happen."
It was very hard in the beginning to
get them to move or to participate at all. The two groups stood on opposite sides of the
big circle of participants with their arms crossed as the Challenge Day exercises took
place, glaring at one another, their angry, macho attitudes dominating the energy of the
"Finally, at one point I pulled them all in close and decided
to get vulnerable," Yvonne said. "I started to cry and talked about what our
culture has done to us. Its taught us to keep our feelings inside and hate each
other and to hurt each other."
"One of the young men, one of the gang leaders, I could see his
eyes welling up and I thought, I prayed that perhaps we had found an entry point into his
heart. When we turned it over to the group to speak, this young man stood up and he
screamed, Im tired of the bloodshed! Im tired of it! Which one of you is
man enough to quit the fighting?"
Slowly, one at a time every one of those kids from the Reds and the
Blues stood up. They came together in the middle and put their arms around each other and
held on and cried. And then they began speaking about the pain -- of being beaten by their
dads, and told they had to be these macho men. As they listened to one another, they heard
their same pain, their same tragic stories, coming from people in the opposing
groups. They could relate to each other perfectly. They understood the terrible,
ridiculous truth: "I was hurt just like you were hurt, and now because of it,
were killing each other." That day, in those moments, lives were changed
Nobody wins at The Game
When I talk with incredible people, I am fascinated to know about
the people and events in their own lives that have inspired them. Yvonne St.
John-Dutras own personal story of inspiration was not what I expected, and I found
it as sobering as it is inspiring.
"I remember," says Yvonne, "growing up as a fat kid
tormented, teased, and humiliated daily
I remember that pain like it
was yesterday. The kids who hurt, teased, and tormented me inspired me. I developed an
eating disorder and lost weight. Suddenly I was seen as "attractive" and the
same kids who had tormented me voted me homecoming queen of the school. They thought they
should treat me nice now because my outer package was different. After becoming the
so-called "popular girl", those same kids started teasing me for being conceited
and stuck up. It was at that point I realized that nobody wins at The Game. The
kids who teased me, who I have compassion for, I understand they just learned it. They
just passed on what they learned and they passed on their hurt
and they probably
inspired me the most. Nobody wins in The Game of Separation and Social Oppression. We all
are targets of social oppression, and we all lose."
One lasting message
"If people come away from this article with just one
thing," I asked Yvonne, "what would it be?"
She thought for a moment and then answered, "It is absolutely
possible, and in a very short time, to have peace on earth. If everyone of us knew it was
possible, our fear and our hopelessness would vanish, and wed create it."
*Editors note: There is a lot more to know about
Challenge Day. Please visit their informative website which includs details of their
program, testimonials, and contact information found at www.ChallengeDay.org/
Mark Reiman is
co-founder and editor-in-chief of Incredible People Magazine. He would
love to hear your feedback at Mark@IncrediblePeople.com.
Or visit our staff page at http://www.incrediblepeople.com/staff.htm