A few years ago, I conducted training for the Maine Summer Camps on cross-cultural agility. I flew into Portland a day before the training was to begin. That evening, I joined a few members of their Educational Committee for dinner — the group who had invited me and set up the training. As we waited for our meal, we talked about camp and the conundrum many camps are in — as we all work toward becoming more diverse and inclusive.
During the conversation, Meg Kassen, who, along with her husband Peter, owns Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, Maine, pulled out her smartphone and said, “Let’s just look up the definition and root of the word ‘camp.’”
Interestingly, we found that the word has devolved from its origin over time. For instance, currently, people are familiar with concentration, internment, and refugee camps — so the word is not one that automatically evokes good feelings from many ethnic and cultural groups. For some, the word even evokes fear. The word was also used in the past as a derogatory term when referring to LGBTQ+ individuals.
What was fascinating was that the original word “camp” was derived from the Latin word “campus,” which means “open field, level plain.” An interpretation could be that the word camp means “to get on level ground.” If you understand it that way, then to achieve a level playing field is the true essence of camp.
The challenge is that the camp industry began over 150 years ago during one of the most racially charged times in American history. It was founded and developed as a “whites only” institution. And because of that, the foundation itself is flawed and often manifests in an unstable way — on not-so-level ground. The legacy of systemic racism has further created a chasm of mistrust, rage, denial, and fear that at times feels irreparable.
Despite that, camp can make a significant impact on a life. You’re probably reading this right now because of the impact camp has made on you. Camp is one of the best places to demonstrate acts of kindness — to witness them — to be in the story. Camp has some of the best stories. And the world needs new stories to counteract the stereotypes and offer alternative narratives, images, and most of all, to help us heal — both individually and collectively.
Our cross-cultural histories continue to collide. Just when we think our alliances and bonds are strong and unbreakable, something will be said or done that reminds us that our trust is impermanent and, at times, superficial. More often than not, we don’t have the necessary insights, skills, or knowledge to have complex, heart-centered conversations essential to creating solid and authentic relationships that are anchored in and sustained by our collective humanity.
The truth is, you cannot transform institutions, systems, and practices unless you are transformed. While change can be forced and can happen under duress, real transformation can only occur through choice. Inclusivity has to become who we are instead of what we do.
All of the inclusion, diversity, social justice, and equity work that many are doing in the field right now — all of it is to get us on level ground. To help us to understand that we are all connected. Nature provides us the level ground and the perfect environment to heal our cultural divide through camp. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes or easy steps. It will require us to change not only our minds, but also our hearts. It will need us not to be defensive, dismissive, or condescending. It will require us to hear a perspective that may not always be easy to receive. To truly understand and see white culture and camp through a different lens. Uncomfortable conversations create change. Just know that each time we open up our hearts and minds to someone who doesn’t mimic our perspective, our heart expands.
Many camps realize that mandated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) checklists or a one-hour session for summer staff training dedicated to DEI cannot and will not create nor sustain the positive cultural shifts we all desire. Much of the focus is on the externals — the optics and the numbers. “Does our camp look too homogenous?” “Does everyone know what implicit bias is?” These are helpful questions, but they don’t address the unspoken subcultural nuances, microaggressions, and behaviors that contribute to feelings of exclusion. Starting from the outside can undoubtedly yield positive results, but sustainable transformation takes a different route, an approach that is sound and doable. You can’t just change the windshield wipers and freshen the paint if your camp van isn’t running right — you have to get under the hood to fix what caused the problem. The work that is needed to shift our society is within all of us. It is ancestral and sometimes invisible, appearing only when we feel threatened, afraid, angry, or indifferent. And often, it will surprise, shock, and shame us when we are unexpectedly triggered and do or say something that is interpreted by others as “racist” or discriminatory.
Following are eight Cs of Pro-Inclusional Leadership™ that will help us to embody the transformations we want to see in our camps and our society at large as we reimagine our world. To help further the conversation and support the notion of “level ground,” we have to be willing to take a different route.
1. Core: Soul-Awareness
Who are we beyond our socially prescribed identities? Who would we be if we were to remove the label of our racial identity? When we start at the place where our humanity is truly knit together, we begin to see and respond from a space of truth. That doesn’t mean not seeing color, but instead recognizing that we see each other’s ethnicities and cultures and all that it activates within us — fear, anger, mistrust, indifference, or joy. If we want to experience each other differently, we first have to see each other differently. Interestingly enough, the most challenging optical illusions to see are those that are in black and white. When we strive to see beyond our color to our core, we open up new possibilities for healing. We are less likely to be triggered by someone else’s actions when we are grounded in the truth of who we are on a soul level.
2. Conscious Agility: Nimbleness of Mind.
We have to create space for new perspectives, ideas, and information. Right now, we are experiencing fixed and polarized ideologies that inevitably leech into our camp communities. Conscious agility gives us the ability to become nimbler in our thinking. We only receive and sustain new and different perspectives when we consciously and intentionally make room for them. Once we have nimbleness of thought, it expands our awareness.
3. Curiosity: External Awareness.
Curiosity is essential when fostering cross-cultural competence, because it allows us to think rationally and innovatively when facing challenges and developing solutions. We have to become curious about what we don’t know. What are our blind spots at camp? Curiosity is also necessary to objectively look at ourselves, our history, systems, and frameworks, and see our relationship to all things. If something is part of your camp’s culture, you have a relationship to it — no matter what your “it” is.
4. Courage: Influencing and Negotiating.
When there is more courage and less fear in cross-cultural relations, we are more likely to work harder toward positive resolution, deal better with change, and speak up more willingly about important issues — activating our power, passion, and purpose with potency.
5. Connection: Interpersonal Skills.
More than just getting along with others, our human nature craves authentic connections with others — an ability to objectively see, compassionately feel, and accurately hear others. Unfortunately, our deeply entrenched cross-cultural biases and differing political, social, and religious views hinder our ability to form profound, genuine relationships, both interculturally and intra-culturally. The fundamental question is, “Who is our ‘they’?” Anytime we identify another person or group as “they,” we disconnect them from we and us.
6. Clarity: Emotional Literacy.
Clarity improves our ability to execute, pivot courageously, and move in the world confidently, especially when dealing with cross-cultural issues. To lead and respond with clarity is imperative when one believes in the intrinsic value of diversity and inclusion at camp. When we operate with more emotional literacy, we can see how vital it is at camp — particularly in cross-cultural relations. Understanding our emotions and pain points allows us to move from default reacting to intentionally responding in every situation (especially within our camp communities) that requires and depends on us operating from a space of clarity, integrity, and emotional maturity.
7. Creativity: Innovation.
Once we have clarity, we can make way for creativity. Creativity allows us to not only think and imagine outside of the box, but without the box at all. Camp communities often struggle with true innovation, settling for adaptation instead. One of the greatest culprits to innovation is tradition — and camp is embedded and vested in tradition. Camp traditions are not harmful, but it is a slippery slope from tradition to impenetrable law. “We always do it that way” leaves very little room for expansion or new ways of thinking and being. It demands that different cultures and ethnicities assimilate into the dominant camp culture, rather than creating space to reimagine camp in a way that includes infinite possibilities to celebrate and welcome all.
8. Compassionate Advocacy: Equitable Agency for Self and Others.
Having empathy and compassion requires people to know each other from a heart-centered perspective. It has proven to be challenging to get to deep compassion when we don’t fully understand who we are at our core while owning our actions and inactions (both passive and direct) toward supporting the equity of others.
For More Information
To learn more about the eight Cs of Pro-Inclusional Leadership and related training opportunities, visit the Earth Purpose Institute at earthpurpose.org.
Now more than ever, the world needs all of us first to recognize our influence and then proactively focus on accelerating our personal and collective dynamic leadership skills. We need a new type of leadership in the world and enhanced leadership skills at camp.
Each camp will have to explore practical ways to integrate these strategies into their camp culture. The goal is to build upon the diversity (ethnicity, geography, internationality, gender, etc.) that already exists in your organization. Dig deep and look for ways you may not have thought of before to help level the ground, as together we create a positive present and future for all children.
I truly believe that camp has the medicine. It is a place where we can consciously create an environment that leads the world by personifying and embodying a safe space where everyone feels loved, accepted, respected, and included.
Photo courtesy of Camp Wohelo, Raymond, ME
Niambi Jaha-Echols is an author, inspirational speaker, cultural agility strategist, and spiritual activist who has spent the past 30 years working as a transformation advocate. She is the principal and lead consultant for Cross-Cultural Agility, LLC, where she trains, coaches, and consults individuals and corporations on issues supporting cultural intelligence and new pathways to inclusion. She is also the author of the book, What Color Is Your Soul: Healing the Illusion of Our Separateness.