Camps often carry the connotation of being utopian communities, bubbles where the world’s “isms” cannot penetrate. To this, we say, “Yes, and . . ..” Yes, we can all acknowledge that camps give us a world of good, and we also must recognize the ways in which the real world shows up each summer.
Who We Are and Why We Care
While the two of us never experienced camp as campers, we were fortunate to bring our full, authentic selves to New York’s Catskill Mountains, working as counselors at Morry’s Camp.
For a combined 25 years, we walked into camp as a white, gay man and a Black, straight woman, both of us with a deep love of the South, nature, and star-filled skies. Since 2020, we have spent countless hours planning and co-facilitating dozens of webinars, conference sessions, and summer staff training workshops for thousands of camp professionals. We love camp, and we recognize the indelible impact our own experiences as camp counselors have had on our lives. We have also witnessed in awe the life-changing experiences of our campers.
We think that in order for camps to continue being landscapes for learning about ourselves and others, we must move beyond the “good-bad” binary. In other words, equity development is not about being a “good” or “bad” person. It is, rather, about engaging with issues of identity, requiring us to build skills that allow us to embark on a journey of healthy identity that validates who we are as individuals. It’s by better understanding ourselves that we can create camp communities that in turn affirm the various identities of staff and campers.
When it comes to talking openly and honestly about topics of race, sexuality, gender, and ability — among other aspects of identity — we all have room to grow, and there is no finish line that any of us will reach. The work is lifelong, and while we are at different points of our journeys, none of us will ever “arrive.” As we reflect on the lessons learned from discussing issues of identity with camp professionals, we suggest the following skills for developing more equitable communities where all staff and campers feel included in spaces where they want to belong.
Getting Comfortable with Discomfort
Many of our conversations with camps have been focused on race and how one’s racial identity connects to a camp community. Speaking about race, racism, and racial justice can be joyful, harmful, liberating, traumatic, frustrating, or agitational — sometimes all of those experiences during the course of a single dialogue. That depends on who you are, who’s facilitating, and to whom you’re speaking. While most of the feedback we receive is overwhelmingly positive, we do want to acknowledge the discomfort participants sometimes experience. In one of our early national ACA webinars, our reference to the realities of race and racism was immediately questioned by a participant who asked why we were being “divisive.” Such a question reinforces the idea of camp as a utopia where identities do not matter. On the one hand, we might want to believe that race shouldn’t matter; however, in My Grandmother’s Hands, psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem (2017) best explains why we can’t pretend race doesn’t matter:
For all its fraudulence, however, race is a myth with teeth and claws, one that continues to tear bodies apart. Institutions, structures, beliefs, practices, and narratives have been created around it and have helped to perpetuate it. Until we recognize it for the collective delusion it is, it might as well be real.
Similarly, after another webinar we facilitated, a white participant indirectly reported they felt “scolded and shamed,” asking, “Were people meant to feel bad and uncomfortable?” While these feelings are completely natural, they are ultimately unhelpful because they are a waste of energy that could otherwise be focused on the action and accountability necessary for anti-racist practice. Robin DiAngelo (2011) has long described white fragility as a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger and fear and behaviors such as arguing, silence, or leaving the stress-inducing situation. The following are recommended resources for building skills to develop a healthy racial identity so that camp professionals can be more comfortable talking openly and honestly about race, despite their discomfort:
- Use conversation norms. We really love Repair the World’s “Guide to Respectful Conversations” (werepair.org/get-involved/resources/guide-to-respectful-conversations/) as a way to get started. More practiced organizations might enjoy the “Circle of Trust Touchstones” from the Center for Courage and Renewal.
- Explore one’s own racial identity development. There are many models out there, but a “Summary of Stages of Racial Identity Development” by the Interaction Institute for Social Change includes frameworks for people of color, white people, and biracial people (Wenatchee Valley College, n.d.). Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD (2017), also discusses a variety of racial identity models in the 20th anniversary edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
Intent vs. Impact
If we accidentally run our car over someone’s foot, even though it was not our intent we cannot avoid the impact and hurt we have caused. A necessary layer of disarming our discomfort when it comes to talking about identity is to understand the complexity surrounding the otherwise simple distinction between impact and intent. To use another car metaphor, we have all been on the highway and quickly merged over to avoid missing an exit or turn; we have also all likely been driving behind someone who suddenly merges in front of us. When we merge, we know our actions weren’t meant to cause harm; however, when we get cut off we usually react with anger and judgment about the person’s driving abilities. Like on the highway, conversations about equity and identity can cause us to experience an impact that others did not intend.
In recent webinars we have facilitated with camps, issues of intent and impact often show up as privileges, biases, and microaggressions. We all have privileges regardless of our race or ethnicity (e.g. citizenship, language spoken, social class), and we also all have implicit biases (e.g. preferences or associations based on our experiences and/or how we have been socialized). As a result, we also have the potential to marginalize others by stereotyping and perpetuating microaggressions.
As a white man, Lance experiences a lot of privilege as a person with those identities. As a gay person, he also experiences some aspects of bias and marginalization. For example, when mentioning his partner to participants in a webinar or workshop, well-meaning participants will reflexively ask, “What’s her name,” or “How’s she doing?” In our heteronormative world, it is common to assume that a couple consists of a man and a woman despite a plethora of examples that prove otherwise.
Chanika has also experienced marginalization and microaggressions that run the gamut from being told she’s “so articulate” to being the only one asked, “Where did you go to school?” while presenting on a panel with external stakeholders. Interestingly enough, the members of the panel weren’t even aware of that microaggression until Chanika brought the observation to their attention. Recipients of microaggressions and bias are understandably more attuned to their occurrences.
The intent is rarely ever to cause harm. Over time, however, microaggressions that result from our implicit biases can lead to folks not feeling welcome in all places and spaces, including camp. Arline Geronimus (1992) came up with the term weathering — a metaphor, she thought, for what she saw happening to our bodies. She meant for weathering to evoke a sense of erosion by constant stress of microaggressions. While one single drop of rain does not cause damage to the side of a building or roof, a constant drip or downpour slowly eats away at the structure.
We are also constantly catching ourselves and being more reflective about language and mindset to override our own biases. In workshops this past summer with summer camp staff, volunteers eagerly raised their hands to chime in. Almost always, we would recognize the speaker by saying something like “Let’s hear from you, sir,” or “Yes, ma’am,” after a response. We are both from the South, raised to use our manners, and yet using gendered terms is something we are constantly being reflective about in order to do better. Here are some skill-building suggestions:
- Acknowledge privileges, biases, and microaggressions. We can all use our privileges to support others who experience marginalization with that aspect of their identity. Allyship also requires us to calculate when to step up while not centering ourselves, apologize when we make mistakes, and constantly learn how to do better next time.
- Be more reflective and less reflexive. Our brains are wired for survival, and while our reflexive biases are completely natural, we can override harmful assumptions by bringing awareness to our language and reflecting on the various identities that make all of us the unique people we are.
- Recognize fundamental attribution error. Psychologists remind us that we often judge ourselves by our intent, while we nearly always judge others by their impact (Ross, 1977; Jones & Harris, 1967). Being more reflective and less reflexive in conversations about identity can help us assume best intent and catch ourselves when we hold others to a higher standard than ourselves.
Inclusion and Belonging
Throughout our conversations with camp professionals this summer, we heard echoes of the same desire: They wanted campers to truly feel and believe they can be their authentic selves at camp. They wanted every camper to feel seen, heard, valued, and loved. We appreciate hearing that shared goal from counselors across camp communities. We have also facilitated enough conversations to recognize that the subtext of those expressed desires is their own need to feel a sense of inclusion and belonging at camp. It is human nature to want to belong and to seek out safe spaces and places that allow us to embrace the fullness of ourselves. When we feel affirmed, it increases our capacity to do the same for others — we are able to learn with and from others, and we are able to respect and appreciate cultural commonalities and differences. This core belief is one of the reasons we embed self-exploration and personal identity development into all conversations about equity and belonging.
We are all experts of ourselves, our experiences, our perspectives, and our culture, but paradoxically, that can make us less self-aware and less attuned to the reasons why we think, act, and interpret the world a certain way. Indeed, as Zaretta Hammond (2015) reminds us, “culture is like the air we breathe, permeating all we do. And the hardest culture to examine is often our own, because it shapes our actions in ways that seem invisible and normal.”
This past summer, we spent considerable time helping others interrogate their beliefs and experiences. We participated alongside camp counselors to model the level of candor and vulnerability necessary to start unpacking strengths, areas of opportunity, and potential biases. We encouraged them to think about their own childhood experiences and their development as racialized human beings first. Then we asked them to delve into ways their camp communities might include elements of bias, privilege, and microaggressions that erode a sense of belonging. We organized the conversation this way intentionally, despite knowing some participants would be uncomfortable focusing on the individual cultures of campers and counselors, because it feels like doing so happens at the expense of the broader camp culture. We believe that healthy communities are collections of individuals with their own identities and experiences whose commonalities and differences have been valued and affirmed. Echoing American psychiatrist and writer M. Scott Peck (1998), “The key to community is the acceptance, in fact the celebration, of our individual and cultural differences.”
Here are two suggestions for how to emphasize the importance of embedding identity work and self-awareness in the quest to create inclusive communities where everyone feels a sense of belonging:
- Have a mirror moment with yourself. Literally. It sounds akin to a mindfulness practice, but that’s for good reason. We can all benefit from looking in the mirror and affirming ourselves and others whose experiences and realities are often marginalized.
- Gut check your thoughts and beliefs with a colleague. Sometimes our perspectives and biases can cloud the way we interpret others’ actions, behaviors, or attitudes. In these moments, talking with a trusted peer can hold up another mirror that allows us to see ourselves and others differently.
Additionally, we know working with children and adults is not a perfect enterprise. Mistakes will be made that require amends; harm — whether inadvertent or intentional in the moment — will occur and require repair. In the spirit of promoting safe spaces that foster inclusivity and belonging, here are two strategies worth highlighting:
- Speak up! If a violation occurs, it’s important to name it and try to restoratively reach a resolution. The focus on restoration moves us from the punitive-permissive continuum that so often reflects how we approach responding to infractions. Instead of focusing on what will happen to someone who might have harmed the community, the attention shifts to how discipline and resolution can be handled with all parties for maximum accountability and atonement (Costello et al., 2019).
- Separate the person from the behavior/action. When this doesn’t occur, people can acquire labels, such as “disruptive,” “problematic,” “evil,” and “challenging,” that make it difficult for them to be seen as members of the community or to believe they belong. A lack of compassion occurs in those moments, and as Coretta Scott King (2000) so aptly noted, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate acts of its members.”
We all crave connection and belonging; it is a part of our human experience. The more we understand ourselves, the more capable we are of understanding others. However, general understanding isn’t enough. The goal of our equity work with camp professionals is to encourage the creation of spaces and places where commonalities and differences are respected, celebrated, affirmed, and deeply valued. Only then can everyone — and we mean everyone — feel that they belong and are an integral part of an inclusive community.
Conclusion: Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges
In this context, we implore readers not to synonymously substitute the word “challenge” with “problem.” Instead, we encourage you to define it as a situation that requires an increase and extension of talents, skills, energy, and effort. As camp organizations pursue an equity journey, we have found a need to differentiate between technical and adaptive challenges (Heifetz et. al, 2009). This distinction is helpful for camp leaders, staff, and campers themselves. The ability to appreciate this difference can provide us with the possibility to clearly define the purpose and the more effective line of action. Technical challenges are those that can be solved by knowledge, whereas adaptive challenges are complex and ambiguous in nature and may be volatile or unpredictable. Solutions to these types of challenges usually require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values and norms, and adopt an experimental mindset.
Over the past two years, we have encountered camps willing to dive into the deep work of equity development, recognizing the adaptive nature of the commitment despite the lack of easy solutions. Other groups we have encountered have expected simple steps to take toward a finish line that does not exist. While there are certainly some technical aspects of equity development (e.g., camps removing insignia appropriating Indigeneity), the process of making long-term changes that result in systemic reforms to an organization are often met with predictable resistance. Sometimes there is fear that change could cause individual and communal pain for past and present campers, staff, and communities. To some extent, we understand that reticence. It’s rare that anyone’s natural inclination is to choose pain.
Menakem complicates the notion of pain to draw a distinction between clean and dirty pain. He contends that “clean pain is about choosing integrity over fear. It is about letting go of what is familiar but harmful, finding the best parts of yourself, and making a leap — with no guarantee of safety or praise.” On the contrary, “the alternative paths of avoidance, blame, and denial are paved with dirty pain. When people respond from their most wounded parts and choose dirty pain, they only create more of it, both for themselves and for other people” (Menakem, 2017). For those invested in equity at camp, the work may feel painful at times, but it is our hope that Menakem’s words offer a new perspective to see the value in engaging in the adaptive work of meaningful change.
- Costello, B., Wachtel, J., & Wachtel, T. (2019). The restorative practices handbook: For teachers, disciplinarians and administrators (2nd ed.). International Institute for Restorative Practices.
- Geronimus, A. T. (1992). The weathering hypothesis and the health of African-American women and infants: Evidence and speculations. Ethnicity & Disease, 2(3), 207–221.
- Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin, a SAGE company.
- Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.
- Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), 1–24.
- Los Angeles Times Archives. (2000, January 17). King’s widow urges acts of compassion. Los Angeles Times. latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jan-17-mn-54832-story.html
- Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press.
- Peck, M. S. (1998). The different drum: Community making and peace. New York, NY: Touchstone.
- Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 173–220. doi.org/10.1016/s0065-2601(08)60357-3
Lance W. Ozier, EdD, has been on the faculty of The City University of New York since 2009, having also taught courses at Teachers College, Columbia University. Born and raised on a Georgia farm, he now lives in New York, and has taught and worked in Atlanta and NYC classrooms for over 20 years. Lance also serves on the American Camp Association’s research advisory committee.
Chanika R. Perry, EdD, is the director of education programs at Hands On Atlanta and a school board member at an elementary school designed to bring together refugee, immigrant, and local children. Prior to these roles, she was a high school principal in Atlanta. She has been involved in the fields of youth development and education for 23 years, mostly in NYC and Atlanta.
Chanika and Lance have been friends for over 20 years, worked together at Project Morry for over a decade, and continue to collaborate as cofounders of Conversation Forward (conversationforward.org).
Photos courtesy of Camp Howe Goshen, MA.