I am 16. My peers and I have always relied on kindness and support from one another. Despite the political polarization and toxic narratives that can drive society today, kindness isn't just a buzzword. It isn't limited to kindergarteners on a playground, or even first-year campers. Kindness is a positive-sum way to live in any field of work or study, but especially in the camp world, where it allows individuals to listen to each other's truth, learn from each other's experiences, and lift each other up.
In September 2019, I became the newest kind-leader-in-training at the first-ever Riley's Way Youth Leadership Retreat at Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, New York. This retreat convened more than 100 fellow female changemakers and their mentors for two days of resilience building through connections, skill building through relevant and timely workshops, and impact building through peer-led conversations and support. We were also able to take part in various camp electives, eat together in the dining hall, sleep (or talk all night) in the bunks, and make s'mores by the campfire. It was a weekend of fun, inspiration, and growth. I came to envision myself as a fundamentally different type of leader — a kind leader.
Riley's Way Foundation is a youth empowerment organization that works with young leaders to use kindness and empathy to create meaningful connections and positive change. They envision a future where kind leaders build a better world. Before I worked with Riley's Way, I saw kindness as a positive trait to have in leadership (and in life), although ruthlessness and assertiveness were often valued in the spaces I work in: entrepreneurship, venture capital, re-imagining education policy, etc. Within 48 hours at the retreat, however, I realized that kindness isn't just a positive trait to have, it is a way to be. As counselors, you know that a sense of community and belonging is especially important at camp — and kindness is the foundation of building community. Kindness is key for creating effective and sustainable change. It doesn't have to be mutually exclusive with taking initiative, working hard, or making yourself heard. The girls and staff at the retreat showed me that. They showed me how to listen to, learn from, and lift up others through kindness. You can do the same with your campers this summer.
We often talk about creating space for other people's voices, but what good is that space if the people in it aren't respected, listened to, or taken seriously? During the retreat, participants agreed on group norms, one of which was our shared commitment to open, honest, raw, and vulnerable discussion. With such discussion comes the need for good listeners who can listen without judgment to others' brutal and beautiful (brutiful, as a fellow participant put it) stories.
I heard Ian Sandler, cofounder of Riley's Way, share about his daughter, Riley, the beautiful young girl who always had a smile on her face, who had a blast at Timber Lake during her summer there, and who loved connecting friends from different worlds. I listened to the story of the camp nurse returning to her childhood school to support students struggling like she had struggled. And I watched kindness grow in the space between the people who so bravely shared their stories and the people who so thoughtfully listened. Be sure to listen to your campers, and encourage them to do the same.
The magical thing about listening is that you often hear things you otherwise wouldn't have known, which leads to new and more informed perspectives. Kind leaders allow themselves to simultaneously be a student and a teacher. They fully recognize, consider, and embrace the value others bring to a conversation. The best ideas can be found in the least expected places, and kind leaders are always cognizant of that. You and your campers will experience powerful moments when you are able to temporarily suspend opinions/biases and, instead, facilitate honest and open dialogue among the campers. Accept and welcome the creativity, individualism, and unconventional stories that campers bring; see yourself as a protector of this safe space.
Kind leadership also means circulating knowledge and power. This can come in the form of coaching a sport, supporting campers in their creativity, and learning how to use inclusive language. Throughout the retreat, Riley's Way staff organized a fantastic lineup of workshops, speakers, and activities that allowed participants to hear from adults. I found, however, that the most valuable part was to have space to learn from each other. Some of the deepest learning I've ever experienced came from these candid and thoughtful peer-to-peer conversations, spontaneous chats in the dinner line, and even yoga by the lake. In every moment, there are opportunities for campers to learn from each other, learn from you, and even learn from their mistakes. Encourage campers to look around and be open to learn in every experience.
Kindness is a positive-sum action with limitless power. You can create kindness from nothing, and, with kindness, you can enable others to do anything. When I was invited by a girl to sit with her girl gang at dinner, when another girl and her mom stopped to ask me how I was doing, when a camp staff member reminded me to take time for myself — I felt like I mattered. I felt like I was a part of a community with a shared vision for the future. I felt ready to tackle anything that came my way and keep climbing. I wanted to share this feeling with others too. Camp is one of the most formative experiences for young people because it is a dedicated space to feel empowered and empower others.
Ultimately, as a woman, a minority, and as a young person, I've often been told that there's only one seat at the table. To secure that one seat, it seemed like I would have to tear others down. Kindness shares the secret that there can be more than one seat, if the person in that seat uses their voice to create more seats at the table. Even though it may sound sappy and Dr. Seuss-like, kindness is recognizing that we're all better off when we're all better off – and what goes around comes around. Kindness is going beyond treating others the way you would like to be treated and treating others how they would like to be treated. Kindness is being empathetic, genuine, and tenacious. Kindness is empathy and caring in the face of obstacles and discouraging odds.
Kindness is camp. And kindness can be you too.
Ashley Lin is a high school junior in Vancouver, Washington, and an intern for the Riley's Way Foundation, an organization that empowers young leaders to use kindness and empathy to create positive change in their communities. She is constantly thinking about using cross-cultural dialogue to inspire empathy in her role as the founder of Project Exchange, which designs online cultural exchange experiences for students around the world.