Camps in a World of Change

by Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T.

Managing Diversity — First in a Series of Five Articles


Let's start this article with a brief cognitive exercise. Imagine that you stop at the local fast food outlet for lunch (this is not a meal that I am condoning, and as vanguards of youth fitness, we should certainly be more selective in our dietary selections. But for the sake of this imaginary exercise, let's continue on). You place your order at the register and, almost immediately, the manager exits from behind the counter. He hands you an apron and respectfully tells you to go to the grill and start preparing your meal. How would you respond? This is certainly not the expected routine that is supposed to take place at a fast-food establishment. Such an occurrence as described here would likely result in consternation, confusion, bewilderment, and maybe even anger on your part.

We hold an internal "map" of what is supposed to happen when we enter a fast-food restaurant and are perplexed when this map is not followed. In fact, we hold thousands of these maps that allow us to proceed through common routines automatically without exerting cognitive effort. Think of these maps as a built-in way the brain conserves energy. We have cognitive maps of the process of, for example, attending a movie theater, using a public bathroom, and visiting a sick person in the hospital. These maps are formed in our youth and are based on our earliest experiences (I can still remember how I learned about being quiet in a movie theater: My mother leaned over and informed me that we do not talk in movie theaters as I happily chatted throughout a showing of Bambi).

Hanging on to an outdated model however, no matter how successful it may have been in the past, can lead to far-reaching problems. In the case of the camp industry, the public has an internalized image of summer camp developed either through personal experience or through camp depictions in films. However, in aggregate, these images are either outdated (or for those weaned on camp films, were never accurate to begin with) and do not necessarily match the current reality of summer camps. The American Camp Association (ACA) is making a concerted effort to expand this limited public perception of camp as mere recreational venues through the release of Directions: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience, a study conducted by Philliber Research Associates and ACA. The Directions study found scientific evidence that a camp experience produces positive youth development and verifies decades long anecdotal evidence from camp administrators and parents.

The challenge of expanding the public mindset in regards to summer camps is just beginning and will take much effort and must occur at many different levels of the camp industry. But would it additionally help us in the camp field to examine our own internal working model of camp? All camp administrators have a cognitive map of what a successful camp entails. Maybe it is a lack of problematic children, minimal parental complaints, full coffers, or just a consistent level of fun. And, admittedly, all of these are relevant. But we must join with ACA in aspiring to much more. And the first step to change is a thoughtful contemplation of whether our own current cognitive map or model of camp will be able to move us successfully through a world filled with change.

The world is indeed changing, and camps, if they are to be successful, need to change along with it. Some of the changes that we know will affect our future include an aging population, technological breakthroughs (see Christopher Thurber's article on incorporating technology in camps in the January/February 2006 issue of Camping Magazine), medical advances, and a concurrent catalogue of new diseases that evoke worry. Also, many in the youth development field are already preparing for a marked decrease of governmental funding to nonprofits. And these are the changes we can predict with a fair amount of certainty. We have no idea what changes will arise suddenly and unexpectedly (think of the societal changes arising from 9/11).

Famed nature writer Bill McKibben takes an even more macro perspective of the changes likely to occur: "We're not used to the idea that the earth is shifting beneath us. For 10,000 years of human civilization, we've relied on the planet's basic physical stability. Sure, there have been hurricanes and droughts and volcanoes and tsunamis, but averaged out, it's been a remarkably stable run. Unfortunately, stability is a thing of the past (2006, p. 34)." A great many people would agree with McKibben that our environment is in flux. So not only do we have to concern ourselves with political, financial, technological, and population changes, the entire world on which we are built is likely also changing. All of this can leave us reeling; it's no wonder why leaders, overwhelmed with the multitude of concurrent change, often have little idea of how to prepare themselves and the businesses they lead.

There is no doubt that the camp industry is already changing and that in order to survive and thrive we will have to accommodate to the changes—expected and unexpected—that society (and the world as a whole) experiences. The remainder of this article—the first of a five-part series—focuses on one change that is absolutely necessary if we are to continue to be a successful entity over the next several generations: diversity. And though the value of "diversity" has been reiterated enough times for at least a basic understanding of its importance, there is still a real need to examine and likely modify our existing cognitive map of diversity if we are to work successfully with it.

Diversity Comes to Camp

In 1998, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan publicly stated that "Discrimination is patently immoral but it is now increasingly being seen as unprofitable (Halter, 2000, p.46)." Corporations across the country have reaped the financial benefit of diversity marketing. Such corporate luminaries as Hallmark, American Express, Merrill Lynch, J.C. Penny, 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.

An increasingly diversified world is already occurring, will not abate, and is changing the entire fabric of the United States. Some of the factors affecting diversity include immigration, intermarriages (of third-generation immigrants, 41 percent of all Asians and 65 percent of Hispanics marry across group lines), the breakdown of traditional classifications (the strict delineation of black/white/Asian/Hispanic categorization is a relic of the past), and a widespread movement of voluntarily seeking out and celebrating ancestral "roots." These changes have already permeated the boundaries of most camps. And for those camp directors that have yet to tackle diversity issues, be certain that within the next several years you will be confronted with the following concerns:

  • an aging workforce
  • greatly increased Latino, Asian, and immigrant youth
  • non-English speaking citizens
  • children and adults with chronic health problems and disabilities
  • gay and lesbian advocacy
  • international staffing

Even ACA's journal Camping Magazine, devoted one entire issue to just some of the above-stated challenges (July/August, 2004). The introduction by the CEO eloquently summarized the challenges that camps face in regards to diversity:

As a parent, I am aware that the world my children will live in will be fundamentally different than the one in which I grew up. I am challenged to appreciate the realities of the new world and how to best prepare my children to be contributing adults. The depth, breadth, scale—and new face—of our world is changing rapidly. Professionally, it also demands that I consider what will be the new face of camp tomorrow. If we feel the camp experience is truly of value to all, then we must understand and be able to serve those new faces of tomorrow (Smith, 2004, p. 15).

Subsequently, the magazine published a series of informative articles on camps in other countries throughout 2005 and continues to impress on leaders the value of diversity. In regards to specific goals, the aforementioned 2004 Camping Magazine promulgated several essential considerations for camp administrators:

  • The marketing of camps to non-traditional camp populations
  • Staffing issues (including demographic changes and recruitment)
  • Comprehension and respect of different value systems

It is not an understatement to say that if camps wish to remain viable entities in the future, we must begin to work with the increasingly diverse population of this country.

Two Primary Goals for Diversity

Above all, there are two primary goals for camps concerning diversity:

  1. To diversify our camps in regards to campers and staff member
  2. To manage this diversity for successful outcomes

Corporations spend millions on marketing, while for many camps (particularly nonprofits), a million dollars is more than double (or triple) the entire yearly budget. Yet corporations still make some fairly serious (though often amusing) blunders. When Pepsi® began marketing in China, its slogan "Pepsi® Brings You Back to Life" was translated as "Pepsi® Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave." Frank Perdue's tag line "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," when translated into Spanish actually means "It takes a sexually stimulated man to make a chicken affectionate." And for my personal favorite, Gerber®, with quite a bit of public embarrassment, had to quickly discontinue its then current marketing approach in Africa. It is the custom in Africa to show a picture of what is inside the jar on the label because of the inability of many people there to read. And what does the typical jar of Gerber's® baby food show on the label? A smiling baby.

Camps will make mistakes with diverse populations. But the root cause of most mistakes is a lack of forethought regarding diversity management. We might well be able to swell our camp ranks with nontraditional populations. But if they have a less than positive experience we have negated all of our recruitment efforts. An example will assist here. One residential camp director was highly desirous of including Laotian children in her program. The local communities had seen a great increase in the number of such families in the previous decade. After much effort, a small number of children were enrolled for one encampment. The well-intentioned director had been proactive enough to consider language barriers but had not considered food preferences, hygiene practices, social interactions with other campers, and general desire for parental involvement. In the end, these children had a less than positive experience, and unfortunately the camp director has been unable to attract the attention of any other Laotian families since the occurrence.

It is the management of diversity that will be the proverbial "thorn in the side" for many camp administrators. We will have to begin by recognizing that many of our assumptions and values cannot be generalized to other populations and that successful management of diversity will require changes in human resources management, child management practices, and camp activities. For if we naively assume that diverse populations will come to our camps and simply assimilate our pre-existing practices, we are headed for failure. Assimilation as defined by Ward, Bochner, and Furnham (2001) "refers to the process whereby a group or a whole society gradually adopt, or are forced into adopting, the customs, values, lifestyles, and language of a more dominate culture." (p. 29) Instead, we must begin to explore the changes that the camp industry 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.

I began this article with a discussion of cognitive maps and their advantages and disadvantages. The major disadvantage of cognitive maps is that they can entrap us into one way of perceiving and acting in the world. It is already evident that diversity issues are affecting camps and that the future of our industry hinges on our ability to work with diverse populations. So I ask readers to please introspect on their own model of diversity. If the model is one of adding nontraditional populations without considering changes that camps must make, success will not occur. Again, our camps—and ultimately ourselves—must change (and some changes will be dramatic and uncomfortable) for true successful diversity to occur. The next article in this series will go right to the top of a camp staffing hierarchy to examine in detail the required personal leadership qualities a camp administrator must demonstrate in order to be successful with diversity management.

Halter, M. (2000). Shopping for identity: The marketing of ethnicity. New York: Schocken Books.
McGehee, T. (2001). Whoosh. Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing.
McKibben, B. (2006). Year one: Climate chaos has arrived. Sierra, 91(1), 30 – 35.
Smith, P. (2004). Promoting diversity through innovative programs. Camping Magazine, July/August, 14-15.
Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock. Pennsylvania: Routledge.

Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T., is a consultant, trainer, and the director of Camp William Penn, a camp owned by the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation. He is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach and Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Group Settings. Shelton can be reached via his Web site:

Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.