Educating America’s Youth, One Cross-Country Trip at a Time

Education is fundamental to American flourishing. However, many young people today are not being taught how to think critically, to reason, or even to understand our nation’s founding principles.

Billy Planer founded Etgar 36 in 2002 in an effort to educate students on America’s history and to teach youth how to have meaningful discussions around critical issues. Planer joins The Daily Signal podcast to explain how Etgar 36’s cross-country student journey accomplishes just that. Listen to the full episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: We are joined by Billy Planer, the founder and director of Etgar 36.

Billy, thanks for joining us.

Billy Planer: Thank you for having me.

Bluey: Well, Billy, Etgar 36 can be traced all the way back to 1995 when you began to take a group of youth on weekend trips to visit various cities around America, and through those experiences you learned about history and culture of that city. But you officially launched as a nonprofit in 2002 and since that time you’ve traveled with hundreds of student groups with the goal of exposing them to various political thought leaders and philosophies on both sides of the aisle, and I’m pleased to say that The Heritage Foundation was among one of your stops recently.

So share with us a little bit more about Etgar 36 and what you hope to accomplish.

Planer: Sure. So in this day and age of heated rhetoric and, you know, to make your point, you have to yell louder. And for me to be right, you have to be wrong and I have to demonize you. Really, the genesis of Etgar was, could we calm the speech, the debate in America, and could it be that we’d just find the humanity in each other, that it’s OK to disagree in this political correctness world.

I think sometimes we are afraid to disagree and what we try and teach the teenagers on our summer trip, which is the trip that goes all the way across America and they meet with opposing sides of debate—pro-life, pro-choice, pro-guns, and pro-gun control advocates—is it’s OK to disagree. It’s how you disagree that could be rude. It’s not rude to disagree.

And in fact, I do believe part of the setup of America, part of the roll of the dice that our Founding Fathers added when they created this country, gave power to the people that we would engage with each other.

So there should be a vibrant debate. But where we’ve gone to in this country is probably not where they wanted us to go, where we go to our tribal corners and just yell at each other or don’t even talk to each other. We just shut down when speaking with somebody who has an opposing viewpoint. So that’s what the trip is all about.

Then during the academic year, we take groups from seventh-graders, to empty nesters to people who haven’t been in seventh grade for a long time on the civil rights trips to the Southeast, Atlanta, Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and engage in learning the history of the civil rights movement. But realize, that history is just prologue.

We are dealing with these issues today and what happens when we marginalize somebody? What happens when we make somebody “the other” instead of another human being? We see that playing out, unfortunately, throughout the decades since the civil rights movement. So that’s really what the trips are all about.

Virginia Allen: Billy, would you just tell us a little bit more about where you all go on the trips? Who are the people that you’re talking with? What are the issues that you’re really asking both young people and adults to engage around?

Planer: On the summer trip with the teenagers, it’s a five-week journey across America and we start in Atlanta and head all the way west, ending in San Francisco and then starting to head back east and then actually end the journey, end the trip in Washington, D.C. And that’s when we meet with The Heritage Foundation.

For example, the issue that we meet with The Heritage Foundation about is income and inequality and the gap between the have and the have nots or the 1%, 99%.

On our summer trip, we had been talking about Occupy Wall Street, so we meet with The Heritage Foundation who explained the conservative right opinion on income inequality.

But in Boston, about three days before we met with United for a Fair Economy, [we] heard their side of the debate, which is we have to close the gap and how they want to close it.

We meet with Guns and America every year I think. I often think, perhaps this is going to be the last time we have to talk about this, but our country keeps bringing the [gun] debate up. We meet in Denver, Colorado, with a man named Tom Mouser, his son was shot and killed at Columbine High School. Tom … has gone on to become a major gun control advocate, and you see him on the news every time there’s a shooting.

So we meet with him at Columbine High School, he tells his story and his views on guns and then we, two days later, we meet in Utah with Clarke Aposhin, who is the only person in America who is allowed to have a bump stock. He sued the government to keep his bump stock.

He was a lobbyist with the NRA, now he’s a lobbyist for gun rights in Utah. He is a gun safety instructor. So we have that debate.

We meet with Pro Life Texas and then we meet with Planned Parenthood to discuss the issue of abortion. So it’s those kinds of debates going on.

And then we also just deal with issues like hunger in America, literacy in America. We meet with a man in San Francisco who [was] 44 years old when he learned how to read because a person took one hour a week to work with him.

He had been socially promoted through school back in the day and he just basically left school, got a job in construction. But when he hurt his back and realized he could not be in construction anymore, he had to find jobs, and this is where it gets scary. This is where we really try and teach the teenagers [that] we are all connected.

Here’s a gentleman in San Francisco who was illiterate, but had a job working in a medical facility, making sure the right pills were going in the right bottles for your medicine. He couldn’t read. He would just sort of count up letters and hope he was getting them right. Well, that impacts us. So we really talk about the fact that there are, as we call them, invisible people, people we may never know or see that impact our lives.

So maybe it’s best for all of us to help them have or make sure that they have the best life that they can have … because it will impact us, in a way. Those are the type of work organizations and places we see.

We’re in Las Vegas and we meet with the SEIU [Service Employees International Union], the union out there, the hospitality and culinary union, and discuss and debate unions in America and whether they’re effective and timely now. But we also see the work that goes on to teach the hotel employees because every night of the summer trip we are in a hotel and magically when the kids come back to their room, their room is cleaned up. And so they see the work and effort that goes into those jobs that we often take for granted.

Bluey: Thank you for explaining the structure of the program. It is truly fascinating to hear more about how it all works. I’m curious, though, can you [tell us] what one of those conversations is like … after you talk to somebody who’s in favor of gun control and then you talk to somebody who’s on the complete opposite side of that? What are the interactions like between these speakers and the students?

Planer: The first four days of the trip are the civil rights through the Southeast. And on the fifth day we get to Dallas, Texas. And that is where the teens are going to meet with Pro Life Texas. And most of the teams will tell you that they consider themselves pro-choice.

I got to say … I’m not sure how much in-depth research they’ve done to come up with that. I think it’s more a gut level and also being a teenager that they feel that way.

And after the first four days of the civil rights [portion of the trip], we sit down the… with Pro Life Texas and that meeting will be counterbalanced with Planned Parenthood later in the trip.

I sit and speak with the kids and say, the civil rights meetings with the people who worked with King, strategized with Dr. King, that sort of emotional politics, that’s sort of easy to be engaged with and to stick your flag in the ground and say, “I stand on the rights of equality. … People should be able to sit where they want and go into restaurants.”

That’s the easy stomach hit. Now we’re going to get to the hard politics and those are the issues that we’re confronting today.

So as I tell them that night, “Tomorrow you’re going to meet with Pro Life Texas, and I want to change the way we think in America, what success is in a discussion and debate. Because this gentleman who was the executive director of Pro Life Texas, you’re really not going to change his mind tomorrow. He’s not really going to hear something from a 16-year-old where he’s going to say, ‘Oh, you know what? You are right. I am pro-choice now.’ So we need to get away from the idea that success is that he changes his mind or defeat is that we change our mind. But success could be that we engage in this discussion and can we at least see we don’t have to … agree with where he’s coming from, but can we understand where he’s coming from.”

Also, can we make a human connection and see what is his life story? Where is he coming from? And for a lot of these teenagers to hear somebody basing life choices on religion, on the Bible, is a new phenomenon for them.

All of a sudden it goes from what may have been a joke or a punchline of a joke to reality and they see, “Oh, OK, so this person lives their life this way. I’ve sort of dismissed that in the past offhandedly, but you know what? He’s a good guy. I just disagree with him.” So that’s really the mindset that the kids go into the discussions with.

Also, we talk about, as we talked earlier about, the concept of it is OK to agree to disagree.

So the game that’s going on is not what’s going on with our media where whoever yells loudest wins, but the game in our discussions is, “Can I take in the information that this speaker is giving to me, connect it with the information I already have in my head, the feelings and opinions I have in my head?”

And … one of these things is going to happen: I’m going to listen to them and go, “You know what? They’re right. I do see it that way,” and change my opinion. No. 2, I’m going to talk a little bit about [how] I think I can incorporate some of that. Some of that I cannot. Or three, I hear him, I understand what he’s saying, but it’s not where I am. “Thanks for letting me challenge my own opinions, but I’m going to stay where I am.”

So that’s what our debates are really all about.

Then we also talk about how to ask a question civilly. There’s not going to be the gotcha moments that rarely happen. And in actuality, when the cameras aren’t there and it’s not scripted, it’s actually rude. It’s a conversation stopper. It’s not continuing the conversation. And I believe that we’ll be OK as long as we keep the conversation going, it’s when we stop talking to each other that we’re going to start to get in trouble.

Allen: Thank you for sharing that. That’s such a powerful way to go about framing that discussion. Really simple, but incredibly profound.

Can you tell us about a particular student who you have seen be really impacted by the Etgar 36 experience?

Planer: The anecdotal evidence of the success of the trip … there are so many. This was our 17th summer. So the oldest alumni are in their mid-, later 30s, I would say. And I hear from alumni all the time about being exposed to speakers.

For example, there was a young man who heard the gentleman I told you about in San Francisco, Leon Veal , talk about his battle with illiteracy…

Leon, once he learned how to read, actually went on to work for a program at the San Francisco Public Library called Project Read, where he now goes out into the community and gets people off the streets, into the vans or into the library to learn how to read.

… This is part of the story he tells, which is so powerful, it’s the power of one person to make a difference. So that one person taught him how to read. He is now the ripple effect, he’s teaching thousands to read.

So Leon told his story and this young man named Andrew sat through that meeting and decided that moment, “I know I wanted to be a lawyer, go to law school, my path was set. I am changing that.” And he is now a teacher because of that meeting. He’s an English teacher in a school. So he changed his course of what he was going to learn in college and what his profession was going to be. And he’s dedicated his life to education.

We see stories of that, of how what they choose to major in in college and what slant would they give to their profession that they were choosing to embark on already.

For example, some have gone on to have wanted to be lawyers and have gone on to become environmental lawyers or a labor [lawyer] because of some of the meetings that have happened here.

Then, overall, it’s just been fantastic to hear that they will agree that we just need to talk, that … especially in the last couple of years, they’re still able to talk and remain friends with people who are voting differently than they do, while they’re friends, while … their other friends just can’t be in a room with somebody that they disagree with.

So those are the impacts that we see, that it’s OK and necessary and vital to speak to people who don’t look like you, think like you, vote like you, love like you, pray like you. So that’s really the strength of the trip.

Bluey: Well, Billy, that’s really refreshing to hear. As Virginia can attest, that’s a recurring theme on The Daily Signal Podcast. We try to highlight examples like that and I’m glad to hear there are so many people who’ve participated that are serving as role models and bring that type of approach to how they lead their lives.

I wanted to ask you, tell us a little bit about the name Etgar 36, where did it come from?

Planer: … Etgar is the Hebrew word for challenge. And at the time you went back to the very beginning, 1995, I was running youth groups at a synagogue and at the time we had a trip, an annual trip to Disney World in Florida.

We were based out in Atlanta and every year I would take a group of kids down to Disney World. They’d meet up with other factors of this nationwide youth group.

I got to tell you, I would sit there and go, “Ah, this is probably the least impactful thing I do.” But the kids loved it, and you know, how could you not love getting away from home, going to see your friends, and playing all day at Disney World? As an educator, I was getting frustrated, I was like, “I need to be doing more than this. We could and should be doing deeper, better programming than this.”

At the time, a few things were happening. I had read a book by a professor, Doug Brinkley, … now you see him on the talk shows quite a lot. He was at Hofstra University at the time, and I read a book that he wrote called “The Majic Bus” where he took his students on a six-week trip around America teaching them about culture and history. And that really got into me this idea of being where things happen.

For example, on our summer trip we’re at Kent State University and meeting with somebody who was shot that day 50 years ago this May, this coming May. He walks us around the campus and tells the story. And because as a student I found it much more powerful to see a picture than read about something and especially to be where something happened, to be able to look around and see what it looks like and feel the vibes going on, or to learn about rock and roll and be standing inside the studios where Elvis helped create this art form.

So the power of being somewhere I got from his book at the same time I was following the music group The Grateful Dead around the country during my free time and their lead singer, Jerry Garcia, just passed away.

Part of what I enjoyed about following them was traveling to a different city and understanding what made Seattle different from Memphis, different from Las Vegas, different from New York. It’s getting harder and harder in this homogenization of America and cities to get that feel and difference.

So I wanted to get my students to feel that, too, and to understand the power of travel. So being in my 20s I had the ego and the audacity to sit the kids down and say, “OK, I’m going to take away your Disney trip, and I’m going to replace it with a trip where we’re going to do a lot of learning and I want to challenge you to come on this trip. And I’d like the idea of the challenge, the challenge of discovering your American identity, the challenge of understanding the culture and history of being an engaged citizen.”

Luckily they said yes. I don’t know what I would have done [if they hadn’t]. We would not be speaking had these teenagers looked at me and said, “No, we’re not coming on that [trip].” So I’m very fortunate that they just followed me basically out the door and onto a bus and plane, and we went to a different city every year.

It was in Chicago on our third trip, we were at the site of the 1968 Democratic convention riots in the park there and in Grant Park, and I was telling the teenagers the history of the riots, and then we listened to the Bob Dylan lyrics, “The Times They Are a Changin’.”

I had a student come up to me … from the youth group and say, “I’m a Bob Dylan fan, but I have never really understood these lyrics the way I’m understanding them right now. [It’s] so clarifying.”

That’s when it solidified to me the importance of being where something happened and bringing in history, culture, politics to really understand who we are as Americans. Because, once again, I will say I’m a firm believer that our Founding Fathers, really the gamble they made was putting power to the people. I think that they were hoping and betting that we would take that responsibly. And that means being actively-engaged citizens and understanding what’s going on all around us and what impacts us, how we impact everything.

So that’s really how it started. And after the first few trips, … the annual trip[s], one weekend a year I realized that’s what I really liked doing. And in 2002 I put it together [and] incorporated it as a nonprofit.

Then in 2003 I ran my first summer trip, that was the 36-day summer trip. And right after that I got a phone call from a youth group in California that was coming to the South to do a civil rights trip and they had heard that my summer trip had a civil rights component to it and [they asked if I could] help them put it together. I eventually ended up running that for them and that became our winter program and the civil rights trips that we run.

Allen: It’s so neat to hear about some of Etgar’s history and just how far you all have come. As you do look to the future, what are your aspirations for Etgar 36?

Planer: I think right now, I’ll be honest with you, we are overwhelmed with business right now, just keeping up with demand. As somebody very nicely said to me, “America has caught up to the lessons that you’ve been trying to teach of being engaged and the importance of speaking to people you disagree with.”

While we’re seeing the divide in America growing stronger and stronger or wider and wider actually. I do think there is an undercurrent of people who have had enough of this and realize we have got to get along here, we have got to learn, we’ve got to relearn now how to talk to each other.

So right now we are just growing as our civil rights trips during the school year are taking off and demand for the summer trip is rising, too. So we’re just keeping that going. The beauty of the summer trip is that it is organic.

As issues arise, we’re able to incorporate them each year. So each year is a little different than the previous year because new issues come up, and I can only imagine the energy level that’s going to be out there this coming summer leading into the 2020 election, it is going to be fantastic.

In … summer 2016 we were fortunate enough, just coincidentally, we were in Cleveland during the Republican convention and we were in Philadelphia [during] the Democratic convention and able to walk around and engage with everybody out in the streets and the protesters and the activists. And that was just amazing. So the growth of Etgar is really sort of organic in that we are able to adjust and tweak as America adjusts and tweaks.

Bluey: And finally, Billy, if our readers have children of their own or they themselves are interested in applying, how do they go about doing that or learning more about Etgar 36?

Planer: Sure. Thank you for that plug right there. So our website is Etgar.org, and you can connect with us through the website. There’s also our … companion website, TheAmericanJourney.org. Both talk about our trips and what’s going on there.

Like I said, the demand has just gone through the roof now. … Usually at this point for our summer trip, we may have one teen who signed up, whose brother or sister may have gone, [but] we’re about a third full right now. We haven’t even done any recruiting or information nights or sent out any information. So … it’s just the excitement out there for the work we’re doing. It’s so gratifying, but it’s out there. And I really appreciate y’all having me on.

Allen: Absolutely. We really appreciate your time, Billy, and just learning more about Etgar 36 and the wonderful work that you all are doing.

Planer: Great. Thank you.

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