When the American Camp Association (ACA) kicked off its 20/20 Vision in 2008, the impetus was to get more kids involved in the camp experience and more camps involved in ACA. Since then, the 20/20 Toolbox series in Camping Magazine has focused on "new concepts and innovative tools to help us adapt and change." The assumption is that camps want to adapt to the U.S.'s shifting demographics and want to increase the diversity and numbers of their campers.
A year later, how much adapting and change has happened? Judging by the twenty-five to thirty people (mostly the proverbial "choir") who showed up for the 20/20 Vision session at the ACA's 2009 National Conference, and the anecdotal evidence from ACA officials . . . not much. Michael Shelton, author of Multiculturalism in Camps and Youth Programs, warns that "we must attract diverse audiences to the summer camp experience if our field is to survive." If this is so critical, why isn't the field changing?
Sure, camps such as Camp Kupugani, The Bauen Camp, C5 Foundation, and Morry's Project are doing wonderful work with diverse populations, but that's their mission. It's what they were set up to do. Many camps with a more traditional focus, such as the eleven camps that work with Western North Carolina's Young Leaders program, do a great job of including carefully selected campers from diverse backgrounds who are good fits with the camps' traditional programs. But why aren't traditional camps seriously retooling for the demographic changes ahead?
One reason may be the Henny Penny factor. Diversity specialists have been shouting that U.S. demographic changes mean that the sky is falling on the camp industry. Another look at the numbers suggests that the worries may be premature. People have mostly been talking about the changing demographics of the American population in terms of percentages. Camp Kupugani owner Kevin Gordon points out that the Non-Hispanic, White Alone Population (that's how the U.S. Census labels it) "is projected to comprise 46 percent of the total population in 2050, down from 66 percent in 2008." That's significant.
But when you look at the hard numbers of Non-Hispanic, White-Alone children between the ages of five and fourteen, the problem doesn't seem quite so critical, at least in terms of potential camp enrollments over the next twenty years. In 2010, the projected number is 22,888,000 and by 2020, it increases to 23,146,000. The number continues to climb in 2025, but the decline starts happening in 2030, when this demographic dips to 22,880,000 and then continues the slide until 2050 when the numbers plummet to 21,558,000. So, the good news, in terms of traditional camps with traditional populations, is that as far as filling beds goes, you've got another twenty years (not so long really) before the numbers start dropping for demographic reasons. For economic reasons? Well, that's a different story.
Another reason that camps may not be clamoring to change and adapt is because it can be quite a daunting task. Shelton has written in the Toolbox series about the iceberg concept of culture. He suggests that changes must be made not only at the level of culture we see (i.e., "preferences in music, clothing, and food") but also at the level of "beliefs, values, and expectations" below the surface, which aren't so easily seen. Focusing on these underlying value differences may cause camp owners interested in diversity to throw up their hands in despair. How do you tap into the cash flow of diverse economies if "minority" parents don't have a cultural bias that values a camp experience in the first place? There's plenty of money outside traditional camp demographics — consider, for example, Atlanta, Miami, and Silicon Valley — but how can we take into consideration other cultures' values while at the same time demonstrating that camp's values, including relationship building, personal accountability, resourcefulness, and calculated risk-taking, fundamentally link to the best of what defines meaningful community, regardless of the culture?
Even at the most basic level, changes aren't always easy. Gordon reminded the audience at the 20/20 conference session, "It's not enough to say we're trying. If you don't have a counselor of color on your staff, you're not trying hard enough."
"I don't think we're trying," added camp consultant Bob Ditter.
There's a lot to consider when trying to retool your camp to accommodate a more diverse population. Diversity specialists focus on the idea that the camp culture has to change in order to provide these culturally diverse campers with a great experience. Programs like Henderson County's Young Leaders come at the issue from the other direction and focus on carefully choosing campers who will be a "good fit" for the successful traditional camps of Western North Carolina. Either way or some combination of the two approaches can work.
Camp directors are masters of the organized community — whether it be a cabin, a tribe, a team, or camp as a whole — and everyone misses those communities when it's over. Camps make a concerted effort to see that everyone counts, but how much do we believe that we count in our own homes, community, and nation? Empowering children to believe they matter, contribute, and make a difference needs to be a diverse mission if you want to change the world around you.
That's the real reason that private camps with a core constituency that hasn't changed in decades should take the plunge. The 20/20 Vision may be a little Henny Penny-ish when it comes to shrinking traditional camper pools in the near future, but they're spot-on when warning that without incorporating diversity into your camp, you won't be preparing campers for the world around them. And, you won't be part of forging a diverse but harmonious community that can work together to be good stewards of society and the environment.
Camp Blue Star's Tom Rosenberg is a strong proponent of a diverse camp experience: "I love the idea of having kids from all different cultural experiences and socio-economic backgrounds. The more we teach them to work together, to play together, the better the world will be."
From a business-model standpoint, it's hard to know what will happen when the great demographic shift takes place. For example, will the parents of Non-Hispanic, White-Alone children eventually be reluctant to send their children to a mono-cultural setting that fails to prepare their kids for the world around them, or will they nostalgically wish to give their children a taste of the "majority" world in which they grew up? The jury is still out, but the question you can answer is which parents would you like your camp to support?
The shifting cultural diversity in this country is only one of the important reasons to increase the number of children exposed to the camp experience, though. Consider the vast electronic shifts that have begun to snowball. Think about the technological changes you've seen in children's lives just in the last two years, much less in the last ten. Some think that camp has lost its relevance in today's world, but I would argue that it's more relevant now for the future of our world than it ever has been. At no time in history has it been more important for as many children as possible to have access to what ACA CEO Peg Smith calls the three pillars of camp: "our intimacy with nature; our authentic human connection, and our human-powered activities."
You can wait for the scholarly studies that are being done and will be done on the effects of the electronic shifts on children's orientations toward their environment (spikes in Nature Deficit Disorder), the people around them (decreased abilities to communicate), and their own bodies (huge increases in obesity). Or, you can take the experience and intuition you've gained from thousands of hours with children, and look around you at what's happening to the youth you know. Then consider the implications for our world of a generation of children who've spent nearly half their lives in front of an electronic screen of some sort.
Why struggle with the goal of bringing 20 million children into the camp experience by 2020? Because the world has never faced a more crucial need for camps or a better time to start diversifying. "In this economy," said Starr Teel of the Young Leaders initiative, "you're more than likely to have extra beds to begin with, so the marginal costs of affording this experience for a child are very small. The up side is so much greater than the down side." It's this up side that camp directors should be focused on as they look ten, twenty, or fifty years down the road and assess their willingness to adapt. "I believe our area directors understand this," continued Teel, "and as a function of making a difference as a camp community in Western North Carolina, they are stepping up to make a difference in the greater community they work, live, and send their children to school in."
Adaptation and change: the future calls.
Nancy Barber began her research in 1972 as a camper at Good Counsel Camp in Florida. She eventually became a counselor at day camps and overnight camps in Florida and North Carolina, working with both traditional and diverse populations. Most recently she worked at Camp Arrowhead in Western North Carolina as a webmaster and circus skills instructor in 2006. She is a lecturer in English at Stetson University.
Originally published in the 2009 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.