Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Wisdom for Summer Camps*: A Guide to Evolving Through Structures Found At Your Favorite Summer Camp.

Image of me 15 years ago on a visit to camp.

Dominant caste structures are foundational to camp experiences. How to evolve beyond them.

Summer camps, initially designed for white children (boys only), have a long history. “In the 1870s and 1880s, the first summer camps promised boys a chance to escape increasingly urban modern life. Roughing it would build character and, as one early camp founder put it, save humanity from “dying of indoor-ness.” (Gershon, 2016) This quote activates the very presence of white-bodied supremacy in the construction of summer camps.

Image of a summer camp prior to 1926. Public Domain Records.

The Land

Land, lake and sky in the Sierra Nevadas.

The Stories

Narratives are what drive culture. Our entire life is a story. Our entire country is a story. Camps are an embodiment of our shared stories. It’s necessary to assess the stories shared at camp looking for master narratives lurking within the policies, practices, behaviors, and decision-making of camp leaders, counselors, and board of directors. Master narratives dictate and groom culture from a patriarchal, imperialistic, and racist stance (here in the United States that is). They function to maintain the conditions of societal power for those at the top of the caste hierarchy.

  1. Lineage: What is the lineage of the (story, skit, etc)
  2. Narrative: Whose narratives are centered? (Think beyond race to include gender, LQBTQIA, age, economic status, disability and ableness to name a few expressions of the human experience)
  3. Embodiment: What is the impact on the people who listen, participate, interact with the (story, skit, etc.)
  4. Power: Locate the power dynamics. What power dynamics are at play?
A dandelion growing on the camp field.

The People

There is a vast belief system that Black people don’t like nature. Oops. Stop. Reverse. Let’s shift gears. All people are connected to the planet. Rather than perpetuating stereotypes that Black or nonwhite kinfolk don’t camp or enjoy being in nature, consider the racist systems that created red-lining in cities. Consider Jim Crow laws that prevented Black people from having access to public swimming pools, parks, etc. Remember that white-bodied supremacy declined to fulfill a promise to provide freed Black people with 40 acres and a mule during Reconstruction. This system of exclusion cast years of limitations upon our abilities to build generational wealth, experiences, and access to the land around us. It’s just not true that white-bodied people love the outdoors more than anyone else, but they have claimed it as theirs time and again.

Youth Culture vs DEI

Often when I’m observing an institution, folks will confuse youth culture as meeting the goals of racial and social justice. Sometimes displays of the latest hip-hop trend, the newest tech gadget, or use of language, get tossed in and confused with meeting the goals of representation, inclusion, diversity, and belonging. The vibe is all wrong when we do this. Yes, there are overlaps, but what I’m supporting you to do is to reach for what is core to humans as we evolve together by addressing power, lineage, and narrative in all that we do. Gucci?*

The Rules

An excellent way to assess your camp is to look at the power structures in place. Who is central to the power structures? Who do the power structures serve? Are power structures in service to safety or protection of whiteness in the name of security? Said another way, what are the rules and what are they upholding?

Me, not throwing away my shot.

Love Over Rules

Rules are often designed to protect campers. But many rules in practice are rooted in protecting whiteness. Let’s take passing a swim test as an example. A swim test is an example of a practice that is often inequitable.

  1. Open up avenues for campers to have the opportunity to take a swim lesson before camp. You might build a relationship with a local high school or university and partner up to provide swim lessons before the camper’s arrival.
  2. Offer up a bridge day where campers who cannot swim can come to camp a day or two before others for specialized instruction on their growth area. Schools often have a bridge day where students get acquainted with their new classrooms, teachers, and classmates before the first day of instruction. This idea may well serve the members of your camp community, building up leadership and equity goals of the camp.
  3. Keep the established swim test as-is and monitor for othering behaviors and or avoidant engagements. I noticed one camper walk all the way to the shallow end of the pool. She sat quietly alone while the others socialized and played games in the water. When I asked if she’d like some company, she was relieved for someone to talk with. Then it came out that she had forgotten her swimsuit and that the counselors wouldn’t let her retrieve it. I went and got the suit for her. She passed the swim test and enjoyed her time with her friends. Sometimes an inequity can be resolved just by figuring out a way to make things right and taking the extra energy and time to follow through for a kid.

The Heirlooms

While I was at camp, the groundskeepers set up tiny fairy houses on tree stumps throughout the environment. I cringed every time I saw them. I approached the topic with a dear one who was a former camper of mine years ago. She is a spectacular leader, so I knew she could handle me saying this.

Space Camp.

I am just kidding. We’re still discussing camp space.

One of the beautiful Sequoia trees. Sadly, they are on the endangered species list.

Bridging

I’ve recommended to my camp that they reach out to Outdoor Afro and invite them to use the camp space for their programming. A few things happen when you take a bridging action like this: relationships are built, reconciliatory practices are activated, habits and patterns are re-examined, experiences are had, and the community gets more robust and more vibrant.

Signs and Symbols

Signs and symbols do serve a purpose, and they are meaningful.

Camp is a Constellation

A full moon at camp. I love laying on the field at night and staring at the vast universe.

Notes

  1. I am eternally grateful for all the love and care I’ve received at diabetes camp. I have most definitely encountered racist behaviors and attitudes like the time an adult asked me to “roll my neck and act sassy.” I consider my love for it a complex love mixed with grief, joy, and commitment. My hope is that every child that goes to camp can encounter a sense of freedom, care and joy that is not ruined by racialized, racist, or othering actions.
  2. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is the current terminology used at a national level to support the ongoing work of building toward racial and social justice. They are largely about whiteness and in service to disrupting harmful white dominant hierarchical structures that have been oppressive for centuries. These terms don’t always speak to the nuances of the change that is really needed. DEI work is wellness work. It should support a path for reckoning, repair, and reconciliation (a goal we can aim for).
  3. Low Supplies: Diabetics need glucose when our blood sugar is below optimal levels. Low supplies often consist of sugar cubes, juice, or glucose tabs at camp.
  4. Dominate: When I phrase this idea that the earth is not ours to dominate, it is important to know the history of how we have developed core narratives of conquering the earth and its people. The Doctrine of Discovery was permission granted by the Catholic Church in the 15th century to conquer, colonize, and exploit Indigenous people around the world.
  5. Learn more about the land that you are on: https://native-land.ca
  6. The Core Four: Power, Lineage, Narrative and Embodiment is a critical analysis frame designed by Studio Pathways.
  7. At the time this piece was written, “Gucci” is slang for cool and is also a brand. “Vibe” is also a common term in youth culture, and used by Jamaicans (like me) for as far back as my family can remember.
  8. Get Out is an American Horror Film written and directed by Jordan Peele.
  9. Campfires are currently banned in California (unless you have access to a developed campfire) due to the wildfires burning thousands of acres of land throughout the state. Climate change is devasting for all.
  10. I find it incredibly impressive that diabetes camp made it through a summer of programming after an terrifying year in a world pandemic. They took great care masking, making sure staff were vaccinated, and staying in pods to reduce the transmission of the virus. To my knowledge no one contacted Covid-19 while at diabetes camp.

Resources

  1. Isabelle Wilkerson (2020) Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Random House Press
  2. The American Camping Association offers training on DEI. I have not gone through the training so cannot speak to its effectiveness.
  3. This needs updating: The Ultimate Camp Resource https://www.ultimatecampresource.com/camp-activities/
  4. The folks at Playworks are wonderful: https://www.playworks.org/game-library/
  5. Sharon Walls ( 2005) “Totem Poles, TeePees and Token Traditions: Playing Indian at Ontairo Summer Camp 1920–1955" https://ccamping.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Wall_Sharon_2005_The_Canadian_Historical_Review.pdf
  6. Michael B Smith,(2006) “The Ego Ideal of the Good Camper, and the Nature of Summer Camp” https://www.jstor.org/stable/3985739?mag=history-summer-camp&seq=9#metadata_info_tab_content
  7. Livia Gershon (2016) “Summer Camp has Aways Been about Escaping Modern Life” by Livia Gershon https://daily.jstor.org/history-summer-camp/

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Mariah Rankine-Landers

Mariah Rankine-Landers

Mariah Rankine-Landers, Ed.M co-leads Studio Pathways for transformative school and organizational change that centers the cultural and contemporary arts.