Training for Social Justice with Camp Staff

Lance Ozier, EdD
May 2017
Photo courtesy of Wyandot Camp, Dublin, Ohio.

Lance Ozier, EdD, Interviewer 
Alphonse Litz, executive director and Ayanna Michel-Lord, associate director, Boston Explorers, Boston, Massachusetts (bostonexplorers.org
Lorilee Chien, LIT and college and career access coordinator, Project Morry, Elmsford, New York (https://projectmorry.org
Cole Perry, staff leader, YMCA Camp Ernst, Burlington, Kentucky (myycamp.org
Dylan Morgan, associate director, The Bank Street Summer Camp, New York City (bankstreet.edu/summer-camp)

Social Justice
This roundtable is part of Camping Magazine's series on social justice, exploring social issues in the context of individual camps and the camp community as a whole as a way to spark further conversation and inspire positive change. Contact Ann Gillard (anngillard@gmail.com) if you would like to participate or contribute to this series.

American summer camps have a long history of inclusion, and have sought to create safe spaces that embrace the things that make campers and staff unique. In Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Adams, Bell, and Griffin (2007) define social justice as both a process and a goal. From the 2007 book: "The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure." Recognizing and even celebrating individual identity groups does not make camps weaker; it makes camps stronger.

As Charles Blow wrote in a recent New York Times column, "Acknowledging that identity groups have not always been — and indeed, continue not to be — treated equally in this country should not be a cause for agitation, but a call to action." How do camps incorporate social justice into staff training programs? Five passionate, experienced, and insightful camp leaders discuss their professional and personal development as social justice practitioners and share insights for other camps to enhance and refine their strategies and philosophies to create greater inclusion for staff and all members of the camp community. Responses have been edited for space, so please visit the camps' websites for more information.

Why is it important for your staff to learn about or practice social justice?

Litz and Michel-Lord: Social justice is at the heart of what we do at Boston Explorers. It is part of our culture. While it is important for staff to learn about social justice, it is critical for staff to practice social justice.

Perry: If we want social justice to be integral to our camp, we need to bring our staff on board. They're the ones out there enacting our mission, living out our camp culture each day. So for our camp to work for positive change in society, we need our staff to be able facilitators and educators of social justice.

Chien: Given the present political climate, I think it is imperative that camps, and really any educational institution, teach social justice. These issues of power, race, and gender need to be addressed if this country is to move forward. Project Morry wants to be a part of this conversation and our staff really needs to be privy to that.

Morgan: The Bank Street Summer Camp is an extension of the Bank Street School for Children, focusing on recreational education and an emphasis on a culture that promotes the same ideals as the school. Since we hire teachers as head counselors, they have the added benefit of knowing how to use age-appropriate language with children, and by working with their support counselors, they help foster this positive culture and environment conducive to social justice action and discussion. All counselors are trained in how to speak to children with inclusive, open, and consistent language that facilitates self-expression and self-reflection.

Does engaging in this work relate to your camp's mission and/or history?

Morgan: Bank Street College's mission is "to improve the education of children and their teachers by applying to the education process all available knowledge about learning and growth, and by connecting teaching and learning meaningfully to the outside world." In so doing, we seek to strengthen not only individuals, but the community as well, including family, school, and the larger society in which adults and children, in all their diversity, interact and learn. We see in education the opportunity to build a better society.

Our summer camp staff, many of whom are alumni of the Bank Street School for Children, mirror the same environment that they were brought up in by reflecting the vast diversity of camp, which includes ethnicity, family structure, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and learning styles. This environment recognizes and celebrates the differences between campers, staff, and families, while teaching children to respect one another's peoples / cultures / life choices / way of life.

Chien: While Morry's Camp has always had at its core a commitment to diversity and inclusion, during our first summers, our staff was not as diverse. A former staff member raised this issue of the importance of having a staff of many backgrounds. This assertion eventually led to an "undoing racism" lens. Our staff now participate in a full-day-and-a-half workshop led by The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (pisab.org/) during orientation before the campers arrive. This is a powerful historical power and race analysis of the United States. It is now an integral part of our staff training curriculum and we have since changed our mission statement to include social justice.

Perry: Part of our mission as a Y camp is "building healthy spirit, mind, and body for all." And it's that "for all" part that gets pretty tricky. Having studied camps academically, I know that the history of summer camps is a mixed bag in terms of justice. Some camps have been important beacons of integration and inclusion in their communities. At the same time, the camping industry has also often reflected the inequalities and injustices of society at large. So social justice work is key to camps being a force for good in society.

What staff training activities, traditions, or other things do you do that promote social justice?

Litz and Michel-Lord: We don't formally spend a whole lot of time training around social justice, and instead intentionally embed the ideals in the staff's daily practice. For instance, as we move through the city on daily explorations, we are adamant about not having kids walk in lines or not talking to one another. This is not natural (because staff in many youth programs spend a lot of time getting kids to walk in lines and be quiet). We say to staff, "We are helping kids be in the world." In other words, we want our campers to navigate the city in much the same way as adults, such as being aware of their surroundings and adapting to voice levels, sharing the public space (sidewalks) and being conscious of others. What is the right volume, voice, behavior for the time and place? What we have found is that kids so value the freedom and autonomy that they guard it and help each other to get it.

Morgan: Over the years we have used dozens of different techniques and activities that helped begin the discussion, but discussion itself still remains the best way to facilitate an organized voice, especially one geared toward social justice action and awareness, consisting of counselors and leadership. Through open dialogue we're able to foster discussion that appropriately deals with the topic, instead of sweeping it under the rug.

Perry: We have been expanding every year: from a broad-based diversity training during orientation, to reshaping other trainings from a social justice perspective (including bullying, sexual harassment, counselor skills, etc.). We also have a staffled Social Justice Committee that launches its own projects and will give educational presentations to the staff each week. Plus, we've added a flexible position that can support staff and campers when they need it and be dedicated to interrupting injustice and promoting inclusion.

Chien: Our leadership staff have all gone through an extended three-day People's Institute Undoing Racism training during the school year. In addition, we have monthly Undoing Racism meetings with our year-round staff to talk about personal issues of power in the workplace and macroaggressions that arise. We also discuss current events and social justice goals we have for our staff and youth. As I mentioned, our summer staff receives a shorter, oneand-a-half-day Undoing Racism training. We also have social justice benchmarks for each camper age group and social justice programming during the school year as well as during the summer, all of which staff must become familiar with. On a larger scale, I volunteer with the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey by co-chairing a new "inclusion track" to push for more diversity with respect to content, leadership, staff attendees, and facilitators at the Tri-State Conference.

Litz and Michel-Lord: Again, it's not so much about formal training for us as it is in a way of being that is demonstrated through camp activities, explorations, culture, and core principles of our new leaders-in-training program for teens. Anything we do with our young campers, we do as a staff cohort during our weeklong camp orientation — exploring the city, making things with our hands, running community meetings, participating in community service, and facilitating daily forums for reflection and feedback.

Does social justice training for staff connect to existing summer curriculum for campers?

Litz and Michel-Lord: It's one and the same. The adults learn and practice it and teach it to the kids. The kids teach each other in how we talk, interact, support, and work through conflicts with one another. Our new teen leaders-in-training program is another way we all get to be teachers and learners. As kids move through the city the adults and teens facilitate conversations on differences, similarities, inequities . . . among all the different neighborhoods we explore. Kids observe and pick things up quickly. They begin to connect the dots.

Chien: We go much more in depth with staff, however it looks very similar to how we grow a social justice consciousness progressively with our youth. They start with talking about identity, learn about culture, race, finding their voice, and ultimately maturing into activism and becoming change agents for their communities.

Litz and Michel-Lord: There is a major difference in understanding social justice in an intellectual way versus embracing it as a way of being. For us, social justice comes to life when our kids have full access to our city — its historical, cultural, natural, and commerce-rich resources. There is no other program like Boston Explorers in our city: inter-age (ages seven to 17) and electronic-free, where young people use the city as their campground.

Perry: This is an area where I would love to be more intentional, especially developing purposeful programming. Friendship-building, conflict resolution, and collaborative skills are, of course, all aspects of the camp curriculum relevant to justice. Without explicit justice-oriented (e.g. antiracist, feminist, etc.) training for staff, however, we fall short in our goals. For example, we would miss ways that a colorblind approach to conflict disadvantages campers of color or how standard anti-bullying and kindness initiatives don't address heteronormative gaps that leave out LGBTQ+ campers.

How do you ensure that diversity in your camp's staff is expected and nurtured?

Perry: For starters, I try to be careful that diversity doesn't mean just getting some variety in who comes to camp. Social justice goes beyond diversity in this sense. Access is part of the story, but so is counselor diversity, robust and ongoing training for staff to work with diverse others, addressing the ways that societal inequalities affect everything from our policies, programming, and camp culture down to everyday interpersonal interactions. Importantly, I think, this has implications for our money and resources too. We can't just spend money on getting more people to camp. Because of our "for all" mission, we have to invest equitably (and not just equally) in everyone's long-term success.

Morgan: We believe that in order to have any kind of diversity in your camper body, you must first have the diversity in your staff body, giving campers the opportunity to see themselves in their counselors. Our supervisory staff, which is very diverse, provides an example and framework for a driven and socially active environment. Sixty percent of our staff body in 2016 were people of color and/or LGBTQ, undoubtedly accounting for the incredible diversity amongst our campers throughout our eleven weeks.

Litz and Michel-Lord: Since our founding in 2011, we have made a commitment to hire staff that mirrors the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic demographics of the youngsters we serve. Every year we have met that benchmark. Our staff has never dipped below 75 percent people of color. More importantly, 75 percent of staff leadership positions are people of color, and most live in the same neighborhoods as the campers.

We look to organizations where diversity exists to staff our camp. For example, we have strong relationships with City Year and Boston Public Schools (BPS). These two entities are great sources for potential staff. Typically, the staff that we hire from BPS and City Year have served in positions of leadership, such as afterschool directors and City Year project managers (who have completed their term of service, usually one to two years). BPS hires are usually full-time teachers and classroom assistants (some of whom were my former students) who work for us during summers, school vacations, and occasional weekends.

Chien: Definitely the hiring process. We go out of our way to hire a very diverse staff from all around the country and world, and then we challenge them with the Undoing Racism training. They have to commit to confronting the uncomfortable and embracing it.

Results of these kinds of practices often relate to developmentally positive experiences, such as speaking to new people and being open to others. What results have you seen in your staff and campers?

Chien: The result is a whole lot of pain, uncomfortable feelings, and, in the end, much more understanding, empathy, love, and acceptance.

Perry: I'd add critical (self-)awareness and reflectiveness. Deepened empathy. Inspiration to action. Greater community involvement. But it does take time and an overarching commitment to social justice to more widely realize these benefits in a camp community.

Morgan: Many of our staff members, most of whom have been with us for at least five years, decide to go into education because of their experience working at camp, specifically with the head counselors, who are often teachers during the year. Many volunteer during the year and work in not-for-profit / social justice organizations and the arts.

Litz and Michel-Lord: At community meetings, or when heading out on an exploration, we frequently say to staff and kids that we are going to make it really difficult for people to reinforce their stereotypes about us. Frequently, when our campers are on the subway, one of the first comments many people often say is "the kids are so well behaved." While we assume these comments are well intentioned, they are not well-informed, are one-dimensional, and often ignorant. We reply, "We expect the kids to behave." People expect black and brown kids to misbehave. Frequently, for black and brown kids, people reduce things to behavior, rarely an assumption that is ascribed to their middle-class and often white counterparts. We've seen it time and again. When middle-class kids are making noise on the subway, bystanders gripe that those noisy teens are self-centered. When not-so-middle-class and often with black and brown kids, bystanders judge, "Those noisy kids are angry. They don't know any better. " This past summer a subway rider commented, "The kids are so well behaved." An eight-year-old piped in, "What did you expect, we are Boston Explorers!"

Any final advice?

Perry: As an industry, there are some obvious blind spots and omissions that need to be addressed from the top to bottom. Almost all camp facilities have been built assuming that people have to fit in one of two gender boxes, a limitation challenged by current realities. Last I checked, 95 percent of resident camp directors were white (ACA, 2013). Access to camp has never been wholly equitable, especially socioeconomically or regarding disability. These and more are the context in which we train our staff for social justice, inseparable from our consideration of possibilities and directions for justice in the context of camps.

Morgan: Open dialogue is the most important aspect of any summer camp experience, as it inherently creates a strong community that validates the feelings and voice of each camper and staff member. From here social justice will take root and grow into an integral part of any program.

Chien: Include social justice in staff training and social justice programming for campers — we cannot afford not to. The literal future of the world depends on it. Our world is not just. It is our responsibility to make it so.

The Social Justice Commitment

Commitment to social justice is threaded through the staff training practices of these four camps and connects to their hiring decisions and efforts. The ways social justice staff training is done at each camp are entwined with their camp-specific cultures and missions. Guided by concern for campers (and staff) who confront social inequities and a desire for a better world, these camps put into place both structured and unstructured opportunities for staff to raise their awareness of themselves, their campers, and others in the camp community. Of course, these opportunities are intentional and staff-centered so the most impactful learning can happen. And the results? While not always easy topics to discuss, issues of social justice are on the minds of campers and staff. This shows that social justice is important and can be integrated into camp training in ways that model for campers both positive youth development and a deeper connection to humanity. 

What Does This Mean for Me as a Counselor?

In or out of camp:

  1. Educate yourself about social justice issues. Read. Do research. Explore a particular movement, such as workers' rights, climate justice, Black Lives Matter, etc.
  2. Engage in self-reflection. Work on your own habits and beliefs. Consider the ways you benefit from different types of inequality in society.
  3. Build connections with other like-minded people through open meetings, rallies, online forums, etc. Update your social media feed.
  4. Take action in your community. Volunteer your time, write letters to elected officials, make art, host fundraising events, donate to effective groups, etc.
  5. Learn what it takes to be an ally to marginalized groups. At camp:
  6. Make sure social justice, diversity, inclusion, and related topics are included in your staff training or orientation. If not, ask your camp director to bring in facilitators from local college and university diversity offices.
  7. Educate yourself about your campers and their everyday lives.
  8. Practice with other staff for having difficult conversations with campers when they say or do things that are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.
  9. Give your campers choices and encourage them to offer options.
  10. Speak up. Ask questions of other staff and administrators about why things are the way they are, and offer possible solutions that can increase diversity, equity, and inclusion.

— Ann Gillard, PhD

References 

Adams, M., Bell, L.A., and Griffin, P. (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice. Second edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

American Camp Association. (2013). The business of camp — 2013: Compensation, benefits, and professional development report. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.

Blow, C. (2016, January 23). We are dissidents; we are legion. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2017/01/23/opinion/we-aredissidents-we-are-legion.html?_r=0 

Lance Ozier, EdD, spent 15 summers in the Catskill Mountains of New York as a counselor and education coordinator at Morry's Camp. From 2010 to 2016 he volunteered on ACA's Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE), and was recognized with a Hedley S. Dimock Award in 2015. Lance is also a founding instructor in the Bank Street College of Education's Summer Camp and Afterschool Leadership online certificate program.

Photo courtesy of Wyandot Camp, Dublin, Ohio.