Wheewww! Summer is about over, if not over for most camps, which means that it's time to reflect on another eventful and exciting season. Along with a bit of a breather, this time of year brings lots of logistical tasks. For many camp administrators, one of these tasks is reviewing camper evaluations as part of their program quality improvement efforts. In light of this, I thought it might be useful to discuss an often-overlooked aspect of camper evaluations: demographic information.
I can remember being a youth camper filling out an evaluation about my experiences. I often wondered what my camp was going to do with the demographic information I provided. Even as a counselor years later, I still wasn’t sure the value of this information. Some of you might be curious, too.
So, what is the value of demographic information? As with any data, demographic data is precisely that — data. Without some level of intention, demographic data can only tell you so much. On the surface, it can help you understand who is attending our camps. When segmented by session or part of the summer, this information can show you trends of who is attending camp and when. All of this information can be valuable and an incredibly useful starting point for creating more access and better serving the campers who already attend.
Of course, collecting demographic information about campers can be tricky, too. When you think about it, asking people to share their identities can be a sensitive matter. For example, how do you ask campers to identify their gender? Do you only include male and female, or do you include other gender identities as well, such as trans or gender nonbinary? Or do you leave a blank space for campers to fill-in? The same potential issues can arise when asking campers to provide their racial or ethnic identities. Decisions about what questions to use and how to ask them can be tough and should not be taken lightly.
We must also be careful about how we use demographic data to look at our evaluations and interpret their meaning. For example, gender can be a very convenient way to compare campers’ experiences and the outcomes they report –—did all genders report the same level of self-confidence? Maybe there is a difference; but what does this really tell us? At a basic level, this finding tells us that some campers reported higher self-confidence than other campers. Let's look a little deeper now. Let's say that our results showed us that campers who identified as girls reported higher levels of self-confidence than campers who identified as boys or gender non-binary. These results don’t tell us why there were differences in self-confidence based on gender. They simply tell us that there were differences. As we interpret these results, it is essential to note that these differences are based on averages. In other words, not all boys or gender non-binary campers reported lower self-confidence than girls and vice versa. Similar challenges can arise when we compare outcomes based on race or ethnicity. If our results show us that specific racial or ethnic identities reported higher outcomes than others, we are still left wondering why. Not to mention, we are making a lot of assumptions about how certain groups of people experience camp based on their racial or ethnic identity alone.
To complicate matters more, I want to draw your attention to another issue that could result from demographic data. I am sure at some point you have been told that you were unique and that there was no one else in the world like you — sound familiar? What is not being said, but can be inferred from this statement, is that because you are unique, you experience the world differently than other people. You experience the world uniquely based on your many identities and life experiences. So, when we use demographic data to compare camper outcomes without considering how they experience the world at the intersection of their identities, we overlook the uniqueness of their experiences.
To be clear, I’m not trying to convince you to stop collecting this information. I am suggesting that demographic questions aren’t always easy questions. They can have serious implications for how we interpret our data. So if you choose to use demographics to compare outcomes, consider the results as a starting point for more nuanced exploration, rather than a definitive finding.
By now, you may be thinking, “So why collect demographic information?” To answer this question, I’ll take us back to the beginning of the post. Collecting information about campers' identities can help you understand the trends of who is coming to camp and who is not. You can then use this information as you begin to assess your programming to make sure that you are providing the most culturally responsive experiences possible. Collecting demographic information can be a jumping-off point for making sure all campers have the best camp experience possible.
As you settle in post-summer and look at camper evaluations, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about the demographic questions you ask campers. What are you asking them? How are you asking? And — perhaps most importantly — why are you asking them?
Photo courtesy of Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, Missouri
Rob Warner, a research assistant for ACA, is a doctoral student at the University of Utah and has worked in the youth development field for a variety of organizations as a counselor, field instructor, and mentor.
Thanks to our research partner, Redwoods.
Additional thanks goes to our research supporter, Chaco.