Tell Me a Story: Teaching Empowerment through Camp Journalism

Jay Toporoff and Gary Hook
March 2017

For anyone familiar with Camp Danbee for Girls located in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, there is no mistaking its underlying philosophy — here is a place where girls can be themselves. A daily reminder of that greets our campers as they enter the dining hall for each meal in the form of a big, blue sign proclaiming, "Dance like no one is watching."

That philosophy and attitude are evident in every aspect of camp life. At Danbee it is called "girl power." Spread your wings, try new things, push your comfort zone, we tell the girls. As a traditional summer camp program, our campers are surrounded by a continuous string of opportunities for that to happen. Staff are trained to find teachable moments that encourage campers to stretch themselves. In programs or in the cabins, campers are challenged to build a set of life skills that will enhance their ability to be successful down the road.

Inspired by the American Camp Association's alignment with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, another equally important component of Camp Danbee's philosophy is the integration of 21st-century skills training into its overall strategy. This encompasses such things as communication, cooperation, collaboration, and compromise. Out of that came our journalism and media program, which began in 2014.

The guiding mantra of the journalism program is "Tell me a story," a phrase borrowed from the late Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes. The journalism program focuses on interview techniques, question development, note taking, and story structure, development, and writing. These skills are meant to foster and enhance critical thinking. The girls write about any number of topics; the choices are theirs and they are published in the camp newspaper, The Beeline. The girls may choose a news article, a feature, or profile, or they may prefer poetry or a photo essay. The goal is to provide them the opportunity to become storytellers.

Last summer, the journalism program and The Beeline decided to explore and examine the idea of girl power and female empowerment to see what those terms really mean. We called it the "Empowerment Project." This team of camper reporters produced a separate publication entitled Girl Power: A Special Report. The goal was to thread lessons of empowerment, grit, and resilience into our camp program.

Remarkable Women

Our camp reporters were introduced to four remarkable women who, in our minds, are role models for female empowerment. Our camper journalists, all entering eighth grade, were given the assignment to interview each woman to help gain insights into how they overcame obstacles, dealt with failure, persevered to achieve whatever their chosen goals were in life, and how they viewed women empowerment.

Following is a short introduction to the women who agreed to be part of this special empowerment report, each a shining example of how to live a powerful and purposeful life:

  • Kit DesLauriers is a ski mountaineer who, National Geographic noted, is widely regarded as one of the best — male or female — in the world. She was the first person to not only climb to the summits of the highest peaks on the seven continents, but also to ski from those summits. The result of a lifestyle commitment, this feat took commitment, grit, perseverance, and a sense of personal empowerment to complete successfully. DesLauriers has collaborated on scientific research in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and co-authored a scientific paper on the findings in a peer-reviewed journal. She also is a member of the North Face Athlete Team.
  • Sy Montgomery is a naturalist who has written 20 books and has been described by the New York Times as "equal parts poet and adventurer." Montgomery quit her job as a medical and science writer to follow her dream of doing field research and writing about it. She has had many exploits involving wild creatures large and small as she conducted field research and wrote of the animals she studied and the lessons she learned from them along the way. She has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution and the Audubon Society on her findings.
  • Mariana Santos is a journalist who was driven to make a change in the culture of journalism in Latin America, where she felt men were given opportunities to develop digital skills not available to women. To change attitudes and empower women to become leaders on the front lines of journalism in the 21st century she founded "Chicas Poderosas" ("Powerful Girls"). There are now chapters of the organization all over Latin America as a result of her passion to make a difference. Santos was a fellow at the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC, and a Knight Foundation fellow at Stanford University.
  • Lisa Aire was the enormously successful advertising executive responsible for the iconic ad campaign that made Motel 6 a widely recognized brand with the slogan, "This is Tom Bodett and we'll leave a light on for you." But even with all that success, Aire felt lost and unfulfilled and wanted to give more. She walked away from her successful advertising career to found Vista Caballo Innovation Ranch, catering to entrepreneurs and Fortune 100 executives who want to become purposeful leaders. Wired magazine called Aire the "CEO whisperer." The mission of Vista Caballo is to: "learn to rid yourself of nonessentials, so you can live in the present as a simpler, more powerful you."

Our camper reporters interviewed each of these women over Skype or FaceTime. DesLauriers was interviewed from her home in Jackson, Wyoming, where she had just returned from a North Face board meeting. Montgomery was interviewed from her home in Hancock, New Hampshire; she had recently returned from Tanzania where she had been doing field research for a future book. Santos was interviewed from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she was doing work for the International Olympic Committee. Aire was interviewed from her ranch in the tiny town of Dove Creek, Colorado, where she took a break from one of her signature training sessions.

Empowerment

Following are examples of the wisdom shared by these four women when asked about their thoughts on empowerment:

  • DesLauriers: "If you are doing what makes your heart sing, then you are doing the right thing. A second part to that would be to allow yourself the time and space to contemplate what it is that makes your heart sing because it will be constantly changing. And that's okay. That's good. Change is good. And the third one would be to dream big. Don't shy away from the big stuff."
  • Montgomery: "It means being able to give the world what you know you have in your heart. And sometimes that might take courage. And sometimes it might take believing in yourself."
  • Santos: "If you don't try, nothing will happen. If you sit and wait, things are not going to fall in your lap. You just have to fight for it. Don't take yourself too seriously, allow yourself to fail, allow yourself to make mistakes, and try again. Have fun along the way."
  • Aire: "If every single one of us can recognize our gifts, our strengths, our needs, our beauty, and who we are as women, we don't need empowerment; we would just be empowered."

Our project reporters found common themes in each woman's personal story. They each spoke about the influence their parents had as they were growing up. They spoke about the impact of life-changing experiences and about the role of the natural world around them. They spoke about the lessons they learned from each.

One overarching theme, which also speaks to the goal of Camp Danbee's philosophy, came to light as our camper reporters worked on this special report. "The one lesson that really stands out," our reporter wrote in the cover story, "is that you cannot be empowered without empowering yourself first. In the end it comes down to the amount of faith you put in yourself."

Camper Empowerment Forums

In addition, Gary Hook, our director of journalism and media, held two separate open discussions about empowerment with our oldest campers, girls who are going into the tenth grade and have reached Danbee's age limit. Their wisdom was profound and demonstrates that our girls "get it" when it comes to girl power.

Here were some of their insights:

  • "Empowerment relates to taking risks and showing people you're not afraid and learning from mistakes. It's a matter of not giving up." – Dylan B.
  • "It means holding your ground and standing by your convictions, being confident in yourself." – Hailey F.
  • "Empowerment relates to the people around you, how you make them feel." – Star K.
  • "Ultimately, empowerment comes from within." – Kayla S.
  • "If you don't push yourself, you will never experience new things." – Ariana R.

Our oldest campers also talked about how their bonds at camp have encouraged them to spread their wings, to find their own voice, and to become their best selves. So, as they leave Camp Danbee for the last time, what is it from their camp experience they will take with them? "Independence and confidence," one camper said. "It is hard to move on, but life lessons are part of that."

Reporting That Is Camper Driven

The journalism program at Danbee offers an environment where campers of all ages can draw upon their natural curiosity to explore topics and areas of interest to them. They learn how to interview people, take accurate notes, and turn those notes into a story that informs others while providing a creative outlet.

A testament to girl power at Danbee can be found in the preparation, hard work, and insightful reflections made by our team of camper journalists involved in the Empowerment Project. They demonstrated what it means to be committed, communicative, and passionate about something they believe in. They took on a difficult subject and made it tangible and understandable for their readers. They helped our camp community understand that empowerment is a choice — one for which every girl can strive.

Gary Hook is Camp Danbee's director of journalism and media. His journalism career spans 40-plus years in various reporting and editing roles, including director of editorial operations at USA Today. Gary joined Camp Danbee to launch its journalism program in 2014.

Jay Toporoff has directed Camp Danbee for Girls in Hinsdale, Massachusetts, for 26 years. He worked as a college student affairs administrator prior to becoming a camp director. He also was one of the founding directors of America's Camp, for kids of 9/11, and Camp Sea Stars North, for kids of Sandy Hook/Newtown.