What if I told you that as a camp counselor you are in the position to change a life? That by committing to making your campers feel seen, heard, and valued, you could be an educator, stress reliever, mediator, and role model — all in one. Well, I’m about to tell you how.
First, I want to share my camp experience with you. As a child, I faithfully went to the local summer camp from ages six through ten — three months every summer, for four years of my life. I remember the first day playing out the same way every year. I would be both excited and scared for my first day of camp. My twin sister and I would ride our bike to the park grounds right at 9:00 a.m. (when camp started) and would hide behind a bush, peeking out to see who had arrived. We were the only Black children in our neighborhood, and we always had to be prepared to be stared at, questioned, or bullied. We always waited until we saw a friend we recognized before we came out of hiding. It was the only way we felt safe.
Our camp counselors were like idols to us. They were in high school or college and had all these life experiences we lusted to learn about. They knew the latest trends, what teachers were the best to have, and how to create excitement. They had so much influence and power. Once in a while, counselors showed favoritism, disinterest, or lack of care toward certain campers. Depending on which receiving end you were on, this treatment could create an unpleasant environment for some campers. And camp set the tone for many of our school years. Some entered the new school year feeling empowered, important, and rejuvenated. Others began it feeling invisible, defeated, and hurt.
I am going to make a bold statement: If our counselors had incorporated diversity, equity, and inclusion into their core values, they could have changed my life. If each summer for four years my differences were appreciated and not mocked, if I’d sat at the activity table instead of watching from the background — if I’d been corrected for some of my poor behavior toward others — my childhood would have been substantially better.
This is the crux of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
So What Is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)?
Robert Sellers, chief diversity officer at the University of Michigan, said, “Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party. Equity means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist. Inclusion means that everyone has the opportunity to dance.”
Let’s dig further into the definition.
Simply put, diversity is the point or respect in which things differ (Merriam-Webster, 2021). While most people focus on physical differences such as skin color, age, gender, and abilities, there are so many other dimensions. For example:
- Thinking styles
- Parental status
- Religious beliefs
- Geographic locations
- Communication styles
- Socio-economic status (the list goes on)
This is important to recognize because you may or may not have a physically diverse group of campers, but nonphysical differences shouldn’t be dismissed.
Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people — while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. A simple example is giving three campers the same pair of men’s size seven shoes to run a mile race when only one of the campers actually wears a men’s size seven. For one of the three campers the shoes may be entirely too small and for another way too big. There is an inequity in the conditions for each camper, and all cannot compete at their best. Note that while the treatment is equal, it’s not fair. Ensuring that you treat everyone equitably takes keen observation, self-awareness, and sometimes even research.
Inclusion is the intentionality in bringing together and leveraging differences to be beneficial to a process or group in pursuit of organizational objectives. The focus here is the intentionality involved in creating an inclusive environment. Just extending an invite to a party isn’t inclusion; you must ensure everyone plays games, dances, and feels a sense of belonging. Encouragement and effort are involved.
Now that you’re clear on the meaning of DEI, let’s get to action!
Start with Your Why
Being a camp counselor is not an easy job. You’re on your feet all day. You have to deal with behavioral problems and accidents. You must constantly be “on” and in watch mode. You have to show up rain or shine and create daily schedules to keep children engaged and content. Having said that, you likely signed up for this job because you truly enjoy it. Perhaps you like:
- Being a role model for children
- Building and growing a community
- Being a leader and making campers feel seen and heard
- Working hard for an organization that prioritizes children’s emotional and physical safety
Whatever your motivation, at its core it likely aligns with diversity, equity, and inclusion. The question is, are you consistently and intentionally ensuring DEI is ingrained in everything you do with and for your campers? If the answer right now is no, that is OK. Looking at everything we do through a DEI lens just requires us to be thoughtful, purposeful human beings who focus on the “we” instead of the “me.”
In addition to focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion fitting with your camp counselor aspirations — and that it’s the right thing to do from a growth and career perspective — having awareness and knowledge of DEI will make you a better leader and a more marketable job candidate anywhere you go. After the racial injustices that occurred in 2020, many companies have refocused on and now root their cultures in DEI. Your future job interviews will likely include questions regarding how you think about DEI — and your performance plans and salaries will have DEI metric components. Practicing DEI is a skill you will need to grow in order to stand out in the real world. Learn and practice as much as you can now, so you can stand out later.
Now that you have identified your why, it’s time to learn how. How will you achieve a diverse, equitable, and inclusive camp environment for your campers and colleagues?
Set DEI Goals and Hold Yourself Accountable
You’ve probably set goals before. For example:
- “I am going to get straight As this semester.”
- “I am going to run a 5:20 mile.”
- “I am not going to eat chocolate for a month.”
Whatever the goal is, you proclaim it – maybe to others or perhaps just to yourself. You may write it on a sticky note so you see it every day while brushing your teeth. You may set phone reminders or ask friends and family to check in with you on progress. Whether we realize it or not, when we set out to achieve something and succeed, it’s usually because we have clearly articulated what we want and have a system in place to keep us accountable.
Your DEI goals don’t have to be grandiose or groundbreaking. The awesome thing about social change is that each of us holds a power to change that compounds each time we positively interact with someone. Emmanuel Acho, former NFL player and best-selling author, likens social justice work to finger-pushing dominoes. “The first domino never knew it was going to knock over 200,” Acho said. “Let me affect the person living next door to me; let that domino knock over the rest” (2020).
If you influence just one camper, trust that is enough!
Set the Tone
If you see fellow counselors or campers acting in a way that doesn’t align with your new DEI values, it’s your social responsibility to respectfully call them out or call the behavior in. Now “call them out” does not mean humiliate them or make them feel bad — remember “we” versus “me.” Your feedback and message should be centered on respect and understanding. You may not always change minds, but taking action is the only way to achieve real change.
On the first day of camp, you’ll have an opportunity to make an impression and set the tone with your campers and colleagues. Ensuring everyone feels seen, valued, and heard is the crux of DEI work. In the spirit of inclusivity, I am not going to tell you how to authentically incorporate DEI into your relationships. How you wish to include others is unique to your personality and experiences. I will, however, offer you food for thought that will help you frame your strategy. Following are some questions you should think about before your first day of camp:
- How will I get to know my coworkers and ensure they feel a sense of belonging and have a voice during meetings and gatherings?
- How will I encourage positive conflict with my colleagues to come to the best solutions for our campers?
- What is my strategy for speaking up when I see something wrong?
- How will I welcome my campers and make sure they all feel seen and engaged?
- How will I educate my campers on differences they may not have been exposed to before?
- How will I communicate my lack of tolerance for bullying, racism, classism, and prejudice?
- How will I ensure campers of all abilities are included in games and activities?
- How will I ensure campers understand the expectation that they uphold values of diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Spend some time answering each of these questions to set yourself up for success. Talk them over with friends and family to get additional perspective and insight. Who knows, you may even inspire someone before camp starts.
There is no right way to solve for DEI, and we all are still trying to figure out “the answer.” How you enact DEI during your time at camp may look different from your neighbor’s approach. But here are some ways you can proactively plan to incorporate a DEI lens with your campers and fellow counselors this summer. Hopefully, this list sparks more ideas and is a jump-start to your personalized strategy.
- Team sports and games: Whenever possible, eliminate campers’ chances of feeling inferior, unliked, or left out. Preselect or assign teams to avoid children picking teams based on friendships and abilities. While playing games, don’t focus just on those who hit or kick the ball the farthest or run the fastest. Also draw attention to those who are being supportive and attentive teammates — or to those who are putting in extra effort. Even appreciate those who show up although they may not be interested. Inclusive Sport Design offers an excellent tutorial, “How to adapt and modify your sport activities to include all”: inclusivesportdesign.com/tutorials/how-to-adapt-and-modify-your-sport-activities-to-include-all/
- Racial differences and underrepresented groups: Wherever you work, there will probably be one race in the majority and one or more races in the minority. Depending on where you are, that could look different. Think of ways you can celebrate differences while teaching the majority about the group(s) in the minority. Food is a great way to connect and educate people — not just on ethnic differences, but also religious differences and even food allergies. If you work at a day camp, have your campers bring in dishes from their cultures and share something about themselves (forgo the food sharing due to COVID-19!). Lead by example with cultural humility (see the Words You Should Know sidebar for a definition). Compliment differences and ask questions about underrepresented campers’ differences to educate your group on how to come from a place of learning and curiosity rather than fear and judgment.
- Check ins: Check in with your campers and colleagues and ask for feedback as much as possible. Ask questions like “Hey, are you having fun, and do you feel comfortable? Why or why not?” or “Do you feel like you can be yourself here?” Some of these answers may guide you to specific solutions to create a better experience for your campers and fellow staff.
Don’t forget that DEI work is a journey, not a destination. You will hit roadblocks, get off course, and may even have to pause for some time. We are all imperfect, so extend grace to yourself and others as you embark on your DEI journey. It’s important to note that any issues you come across should be discussed with your camp director. Not only will doing so offer you extra support in problem-solving, but transparent communication will hold management accountable for thinking about the camp’s broader DEI communication practices and values.
Have fun changing lives!
Words You Should Know
Here’s a short list of definitions you are encouraged to get acquainted with, so you have the best chance of success at incorporating a DEI framework in your camp experience:
- Nika White Consulting blogs on various DEI topics
- Teens Against Bullying
- Youth for Human Rights
- Children’s Book Council Diversity Resources
Lauren Dike serves as a DEI manager for Nika White Consulting. Lauren’s background is in real estate finance and accounting. After soul searching, she discovered her passions lie within diversity, equity, and inclusion. She obtained her certificate in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University in August of 2020 and is excited to put her new knowledge to use. Lauren has a unique perspective around DEI, as she has firsthand experiences with lack of inclusion and psychological safety in work environments. She hosts a podcast called Leading an Effective DEI Employee Resource Group and also cofounded ReUP, a real estate network for underrepresented minorities.
Acho, E. (2020). Uncomfortable conversations with a black man. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.
Merriam-Webster. (2021). Diversity. Retrieved from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diversity