When thinking about NCOBS, many people envision groups camping in the North Carolina mountains. But if you take a closer look, it’s evident that the story goes far beyond the forest–and the Charlotte Unity Project is a perfect example. This October, friends of NCOBS gathered for an event in Charlotte to support a program that has taken more than 600 teens into the wilderness and empowered them to affect real change in their communities afterward.
The Charlotte Unity Project is, “a visceral, emotional and physical journey with 14 complete strangers in the wilderness that challenges you, pushes your limits, hurts you, strengthens you, makes you laugh, makes you cry, forges a deep bond of trust, understanding, and love between you and your crewmates, and enlightens you about life in a way that causes you to reevaluate everything,” said Myers Park High School senior Ethan Tobin. “It was one of the most freeing, startlingly real experiences I’ve ever had.”
Tobin joined students from four Charlotte public schools this June for a 6-night wilderness courses, incorporating activities designed to explore social issues and teach compassion. Student crews are intentionally diverse, with crew members chosen to represent the diversity of their schools. Unity instructors then create a safe environment that fosters open and honest dialogue that helps students transcend social barriers.
“One of the activities required us to divulge personal details and our struggles in life,” says Tobin. “This was the first of several moments when everyone was crying. Our wonderful instructor Lila said that this really showed her how strong and brave everyone was. That was an inspirational takeaway.”
The Unity Project began in the 1990s when late Outward Bound instructor Dave Genova witnessed a crew of students behave intolerantly upon crossing paths in the woods with a crew of ethnically different students. In the spirit of Outward Bound problem solving, he reasoned that the relationships and spirit of teamwork formed on an Outward Bound course, combined with the pillars of self-reliance and compassion, could be used to promote social justice and tolerance. This could then be carried into life off the trail to inspire social change.
Genova’s vision of NCOBS as a catalyst for social change has since become a reality. What makes this program so powerful is that by design, the wilderness experience is only the beginning. Students return to their schools in the fall and, with the help of NCOBS and a faculty adviser, design and implement two projects designed to make their school community more inclusive and accepting.
As long as projects promote inclusion, Unity Clubs are encouraged to use their creativity to implement action that works for their school community. Last month, students from Independence High School initiated a Mix-It-Up Lunch day where Unity Club members created a structure for students in the cafeteria to share a table with peers with whom they would normally not interact. Other projects have included assemblies to educate student bodies about religious differences, diversity parades, and media campaigns that have helped break stereotypes and encourage students to positively approach diversity.
Of the impact of his course off the trail, Tobin said, “During the trip, we talked a lot about bringing Outward Bound values back to our school. Social boundaries are a problem. We segregate ourselves. It often seems like our minds are programmed to interact only with people who look like us, who have the same lifestyle as us. It’s a shame, because we have such a wonderful, diverse student body. We have so much to learn from each other.”
The Charlotte Unity Project is funded solely by NCOBS donors. Over the past 17 years, supporters have given nearly $700,000 to enable students to attend their wilderness course tuition-free. The vast majority of Unity students would not have access to NCOBS courses without this scholarship. Through NCOBS and the generosity of its donors, Charlotte’s Schools are making a real, widespread difference.