20/20 Toolbox: Diversity Is Critical

by Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T.
 
Let me be very clear at the beginning of this article: We must attract diverse audiences to the summer camp experience if our field is to survive. And though the term “diversity” is applicable to many categories — religion, sexuality, age — a primary focus must now be on people of color from both ethnic groups that have been longstanding citizens of the United States and recent immigrants.
   

The Camp Community Takes Notice

At the same time the 2008 American Camp Association (ACA) national conference was taking place in Nashville, the Pew Research Center made national headlines by releasing a report that predicts that by 2050 nearly one in five Americans will have been born outside of the United States. Additionally, new immigrants and their children will account for 82 percent of the population increase from 2005 to 2050. I read the USA Today article covering this particular report while at the conference, and later that day, as I walked amongst the throngs of conference participants, it was impossible not to notice that people of color were almost non-existent. I wasn’t the only person using this characteristic to make comparative judgments. Almost every person that I spoke to over my three days at the conference was well attuned to the lack of people of color.

One month later in March 2008, the National Parks and Recreation Association publicized the emerging trends affecting recreation programming in the United States. Working with diverse audiences was identified as one of the most pressing needs for the future of recreation. Ironically, in the March/April 2008 edition of Camping Magazine, summer camp enrollment trends were addressed. The analysis in this article found that for the third year, enrollment of ethnic/minority campers did not experience any significant growth in any segment of the camp community.

Why the Delay?

Even if enrollment trends do not indicate an increase in ethnic and minority campers, the demographics of the United States is, nevertheless, changing. The following is a list of the countries that are the current largest sources of immigration to the United States: Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Russia, and Korea. To these, we must add longstanding ethnic populations in the States, including African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Latinos. Although in the recent past only several states were the primary recipients of this diversity, current trends find it spreading more evenly across the entire country. Even camps that have witnessed almost no immediate changes in their surrounding communities will encounter more and more diversity over the next decade.

Camps are not the only entities confronted with demographic changes. Corporations across the country have reaped the financial benefit of diversity marketing. Such corporate luminaries as Hallmark, American Express, Merrill Lynch, JC Penney, Mattell, Hasbro, AT&T, and VISA (to name just a tiny number) have all successfully reached out to diverse populations. Indeed, these (and almost all) corporate entities recognize that survival depends very much on positioning themselves as a purveyor of goods and/or services for a heterogeneous population.

Why then are so many camps behind the times in regard to working with diversity? I postulate that there are several possible reasons ranging from the benign and uninformed to the intentionally prejudiced.

  1. In spite of the media and political attention focused on diversity, particularly the immigration issue, there are camp administrators who do not comprehend the momentous changes occurring within the United States stemming from diversity. In short, they do not yet recognize the need for change.
  2. Some administrators believe that there is ample time to make changes in their camps; in their perspective, there is no need to rush.
  3. Others think that making changes in their camps to meet the needs and demands of diverse audiences will be a fairly straightforward and an easy process that can be accomplished rapidly. They too see no need to rush.
  4. Camp administrators may be unsure of how to begin the process and are waiting for more direct input or direction; for this group, the change process is too difficult, and it is less intimidating and threatening to simply wait.
  5. Some directors expect the new demographics of the country to adapt to camp traditions; these groups are expected to make the majority, if not all, of the changes. These administrators are waiting for diversity to come to them on the camp’s terms.
  6. Sadly, some directors have no interest in widening their programmatic scope; they have been successful with their typical and longstanding audience and have no desire to create change that can impact their operations.
  7. Finally, and a reason that cannot be denied, a few camp administrators find diversity, particularly people of color, as objectionable and unwelcome. They purposefully make no effort to invite diversity.

The ACA’s Blueprint for Diversity

It was at the 2008 ACA National Conference that the concept of a blueprint to guide ACA’s diversity efforts was formulated. It was decided that all levels of ACA needed to address the challenge and opportunity of diversity. Thus, we are promoting change at the national, local office, camp, and camp director/administrative levels.

The Camp Level
At the camp level, we need to create an environment that is supportive of diversity. We must not only serve new demographics, but we must also assure that they have a positive experience and wish to return in the future. And, since word of mouth is integral for many of the new groups we will be serving, we want our newly satisfied customers to spread the word.

In my recent ACA book release Multiculturalism in Camps and Youth Programs (2008), I present an outline for camps to follow in working with diversity. I’m choosing in this article to discuss the one most essential endeavor that supersedes all others: explore the underlying assumptions that often silently guide our camps. Let me explain. Educators often make use of an illustration of an iceberg to teach the concept of culture (see illustration 1). The level above the water depicts artifacts that are most noticeable, largely those occurrences that can be experienced by our five senses (e.g., preferences in music, clothing, and food). And it is these that are targeted in most diversity efforts. For example, in my diversity work with youth organizations, most energy is exerted on the environment, including modifying it to reflect different cultures in decor, posters, bulletin board displays, and decorations; participating in cultural celebrations; and engaging in activities that reflect multiple cultural perspectives. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but this will not suffice for success. Such changes target surface levels of diversity but leave unaddressed far more important but less obvious cultural dimensions.

The more important changes must focus on characteristics beneath the surface of our illustrative iceberg. Beneath this surface reside fundamental differences in assumptions, beliefs, values, and expectations. Specific examples include the importance of family and work, attitudes about men’s and women’s roles, the roles of children and how they are raised, and views about leadership. Let’s give a very specific example: American camps tend to work from a fundamental belief that children need to learn personal responsibility and self-reliance, and participants are expected to learn and demonstrate these skills through our programming. But would an immigrant family coming from one of the Asian cultures — cultures in which the needs of the individual are considered as secondary to the needs of the family — be welcoming of such a dramatically different concept of youth development? Our camps may be teaching the opposite of what these families desire.

In summary, youth organizations, including camps, believe that by making surface level changes they have done their part. But it is only through re-examining our underlying assumptions, beliefs, values, traditions, and expectations about camp and the camp experience that we begin to embrace the significance of diversity. For if we naively assume that diverse populations will come to our camps and simply assimilate our preexisting practices, we are headed for failure. Instead, we must begin to explore the changes that our camps will have to make in order to manage diversity. Notice that the sentence does not read “changes that diverse populations will have to make to fit into our camps.” We are the ones required to change.

Here are some suggested steps to contemplate as you work on a diversity plan for your camps:

  1. Clarify the goals and outcomes of your camp.
  2. Clarify underlying assumptions inherent in your camp.
  3. Identify the new demographic group(s) that you intend to serve.
  4. Learn how your program goals and outcomes match the needs, desires, and expectations of these targeted populations. Mutually determine what will and will not work.

These sound like easy steps, but they are not. They take preparation and diligent effort. Most youth organizations find that it takes years to accomplish meaningful success with diversity.

The Camp Director Level
If a camp director/administrator wants to be a leader who is successful with diversity, there are numerous levels of personal development that must occur. Here are two core principles:

Acknowledge that Cultural Differences Exist and Impact our Camps
We have already examined the iceberg model of culture and now recognize that most of our cultural challenges will arise from the beneath the surface level of the iceberg. Each culture has its own viewpoints, philosophies, beliefs, values, and convictions; these are not immediately obvious and neither are they often openly addressed until some form of cross-cultural conflict occurs.

Many of the customs and practices that we take for granted in the United States have no relevance to other cultures. Unfortunately, many Americans do not believe that it is necessary to learn about other cultures; the new demographic groups are expected to make the majority if not all of the change. Though the finding that Americans know very little about other cultures is often found in research, a recent National Geographic-Roper study found that many Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four do not think it is important to know a foreign language or to know the location of countries that are prevalent in current events (as cited in Garber 2008).

Develop Cross-Cultural Competence
Recognize that we can increase our competence in working with new populations. This competence is not an inborn characteristic a person has or doesn’t have; it instead consists of a set of skills that can be learned and improved upon. There are now surveys that measure our cross-cultural abilities as well an ever-increasing number of training options to develop these skills. ACA itself is gearing up to offer camp administrators and staff targeted training. Take advantage of these offerings, and develop your crosscultural skills.

Diversity Is Indeed Critical

Diversity is indeed a critical topic affecting our lives, both in the personal and professional realms. ACA rightly claims that unless we begin to work successfully with diverse audiences, the summer camp field will soon face a crisis. The demographics that have traditionally comprised our population are shrinking while a multitude of new groups, many unfamiliar with the concept of summer camps, are oblivious or unwelcoming to our offerings. Fostering successful collaborations with these new communities while concomitantly maintaining a positive experience for our longstanding camp populations is a challenge, and without trying to sound alarmist or doom laden, time is running out. We need to start our work now.

Adapting to Diverse Groups: Common Expectations

In researching my book Multiculturalism in Camps and Youth Programs: How Us and Them Became Just Us (2008), I spoke to youth organizations across the country. The following are the four most common expectations I encountered likely to challenge our work with diverse groups.

  • Often directors express dismay over the apparent lack of freedom that immigrant children are offered. Their families simply will not let them participate in a program no matter how energetic the recruitment effort. A familiar question is: "Why are these families so restrictive?" Not discounting the existence of some cultures that are deliberately restrictive, it might very well be that parents are responding to their concerns over youth and youth values in American culture. They hear about gangs, high pregnancy rates, school drop-outs, and even watch youth from their own ethnic enclaves slip into typical Americanized ways of dress and behavior and cannot help but fear for the future of their own children. Their restrictiveness is not a traditional cultural manifestation but rather a response to legitimate concerns for their children's well-being.
  • Camp administrators hold to an ideal of the "good participant." Such a youth demonstrates regular attendance, actively participates in program offerings, and forms positive relationships with group peers and staff members. However, how does this apply to immigrant youth whose parents have not had the opportunity to learn English and therefore require that their children assume many of the routine responsibilities typically performed by adults? These children may need to pay bills, escort family members to doctors, and even take on evening and weekend jobs simply to assist in earning an income for the entire family. This curtails their involvement in our programs, and the uninformed may assume that these youth simply lack the interest to participate in our programs when, in fact, they are deluged with a myriad of responsibilities that may detract from their sincere desire to participate.
  • Camp administrators also hold to an ideal of the "good family," defined as those frequently involved in their children's activities. Such an expectation tends to marginalize many families in this country. One director encountered this challenge within his baseball camp. When teams from different economic strata of the city competed, it was obvious that parents from the middle and upper income brackets were able to purchase the very best in training and gear. Some ethnic communities simply could not, and neither could family members attend the games due to work. Based on superficial observations, it might be tempting to presume that some of these immigrant groups simply did not have the requisite interest in their children. After all, look at how little effort the immigrant families put into their children's sports involvement. But a deeper analysis reveals that economic factors are the real reason for the apparent lack of family interest.
  • When interacting with individuals from other cultures, stereotyping, the process by which we attribute specific characteristics to all members of a specific culture, is common. However, we cannot assume that all immigrants require the same level of effort and intervention. A thirdgeneration United States born Dominican youth may have the same values, interests, and goals as our typical campers. The low-paid immigrant laborer who popularizes the media of today is but one of many immigrant manifestations.

 

Resources for Promoting Diversity at Your Camp

  • Teaching Tolerance: Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance provides educators with free educational materials that promote respect for differences and appreciation of diversity in the classroom and beyond. www.tolerance.org
  • Intercultural Press: For twenty-five years, the premier publisher of books exploring and celebrating cultural diversity and the experiences of working and studying abroad. www.interculturalpress.com
  • The New Americans: A public television series that examines a group of immigrants as they adapt to the United States. The Web site for the program offers a trove of riches, including a great diversity quiz. www.pbs. org/independentlens/newamericans
  • Films offer another way of understanding the both the complexity and mystery of other cultures. Consider renting the following highly recommended and instructive films:
    • Japanese Story (2003): The story follows the evolution of a relationship between a Japanese businessman and an Australian female geologist who leads him on a tour of the outback.
    • Fear and Trembling (2003): A Belgian woman encounters cultural challenges as the only Western employee in a Tokyo company.
    • God Grew Tired of Us (2007): This documentary follows the travails of Sudanese refugees to their new life in America.

References
Bialeschki, M.D., & Malinowski, J.C. (2008). Summer camp enrollment trends. Camping Magazine, 46-53.
Dolesh, R. (2008). Trending Positive. Parks & Recreation, 3, 64-75.
El Nasser, H. (2008, February 3). U.S. growth spurt seen by 2050. USA Today, 3A.
Garber, K. (2008, March 10). The ignorant American. U.S. News & World Report, 22.
Shelton, M. (2008). Multiculturalism in camps and youth programs: How us and them became just us. Monterey, California: Healthy Learning Press.

Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T., is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach, Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Camp Settings, and Multiculturalism in Camps and Youth Programs: How Us and Them Became Just Us. Shelton coordinates camp programming for the City of Philedelphia and consults with youth agencies across the country to establish best practices.

Originally published in the 2008 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

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