|Not the actual "Foreigner's Cabin, but it looked just like this.|
“Those children.” (Must be followed by a dismissive wave of the right hand in a direction that indicates somewhere that you may not want to drive to for fear of interacting with folks unlike yourself.) More about that, shortly.
I have been thinking a great deal about perception and how those who live in the United States see themselves. In a career that has been dedicated to youth development and primarily through the camp experience, I have had the opportunity to serve with leaders from all over the world.
One of the great programs available to camps and other youth organizations around the country is that of placing international staff participants as part of leadership. (More information about that at the end of this story.)
Over 300 staff from nearly 30 countries has been a part of my camp experience. I still hear from a handful of them and I gained so much from each one and how our world becomes smaller from the camp experience.
At once I think about how differently many other cultures treat and value youth. These young people who come from all over the world to work in a 24/7 (or as I like to call it 25/8) setting; live in a cabin or tent; share meals that may vastly alter from their diets at home; and be a part of a communal group relying on the kindness of others.
Here are just a handful of examples of where I feel we have had vast cultural differences.
At my first camp, I had an international staff member from Australia and when he sat through our organization's training about child abuse prevention, he decided that he could not be a part of a culture that allowed children to be treated in such a way that something as common as care would need a training in the prevention of abuse. The training at that time was very much about what one could not do with children. He had been working with children for nearly 5 years in his home country and that was never something that had entered his mind let alone any of his work. He left and went back home before the campers arrived.
My second camp as a director, I had arrived and was toured about by the seasonal program director and cook. Just past the Health Lodge was a “storage” looking building with a pad lock door. The cook introduced it as the “foreigners’ cabin.” My first thought was that an international group of leaders built and dedicated it. She quickly told me that this was where the “foreigners” stayed when they were part of the camp staff. During the rest of the year, the building was used to house donated items for the camp. I could not help but imagine arriving at a camp and being shown this as your housing for the next 3 months.
Somewhat appalled, I mentioned to that cook that I did not care for the tone of the term “foreigners” and in fact shared with her that I had been born in Brasil and moved to these Untied States at the age of four. I suggested that any staff from other countries could be referred to as “international” or even better by their name.
Later at that camp, I asked about a manila file folder in the drawer that was labeled the “Banning Kids.” It was the volunteer board chairperson who shared with me that the camp “allowed those children” to attend on scholarship and that I would need to go recruit them later that spring. It was at this time that he waved his hand in an easterly direction in a dismissive posture indicating somehow that they were from someplace else.
For those who do not know California, Banning is a desert community in San Bernardino County with at that time a high percentage of Latino families. That individual made it sound like anyone outside the community had the privilege to be allowed and should be grateful for the opportunity.
At one point, at this camp, we had a international staff person who had a difficult name to pronounce and one of the staff decided to refer to her as “Dory” because it was “just easier to say.”
When I was at the camp in Florida, that organization had a partnership with the equivalent organization in Colombia. The program director mentioned that most of the youth who attended where there as a result of their parent’s involvement in the drug trade. It was a bit derogatory and stereotypical of any child from that country must somehow be involved in illegal activities.
When I moved to the camp in New York and was meeting with the Human Resource manager, they also started talking about the “foreigners” and what additional paper work would be needed if I was going to have “those people” as part of the staff.
One of my favorite leaders, whom I have had the privilege of working with over 5 summers, was Diego, who happened to be from Colombia. On his second summer as part of the team, he wanted to address the other staff about culture and specifically about the way folks in the US use the word “love.” During our staff orientation week, he presented information and best practices around welcoming youth and fellow staff from different cultures. The best lesson I had was that often times, a US staff person would say how much they “loved” someone within hours or a day or so of meeting them. The word and emotion of “Love” is something that was exceptionally personal and intimate in his culture and wanted the staff to be aware of how it may sound to those not from the same culture. It set a tone for the staff team and one that had a lasting impact on everyone during those summers at that camp.
Camp is a place that often reflects our culture in a hyper sensitive manner. It is a short time and somewhat bubble of what the world is like. My goal has always been to include everyone and make sure that everyone is welcome. I know that goal has fallen short many times over. Like Diego, I also know that my team has demonstrated the best parts of lessons learned.
Inclusion is a tricky word sometimes because to be in a group means that it implies there is always someone outside the group. As a child and young adult, I longed to be part of groups. I wanted to be part of a baseball team, Cub Scouts, orchestra, choir, drama, and for those who know my story, I wanted more than anything to be an astronaut. I found that the place that allowed me to be my true self was when I discovered camp. Specifically, when I became a part of the team at a YMCA day camp and overnight camp.
It was a group of leaders who may not have been much older than me at a Christian Leadership Conference (CLC) that inspired my journey. I often joke that I saw all those good looking, tall, gregarious individuals who had long tan legs leading and playing guitars and just knew that I had to work at camp. I felt included even though I would never meet those standards I saw.
|"Smitty" leading a song at that CLC - I am sitting between "Smitty" and the camera.|
All these and more have been great lessons learned about diversity and inclusion.
I have spent the last two months in a certification program on diversity and inclusion called “Another Seat at the Table.” I am applying my lessons learned in a lifetime of service to youth development through the camp experience to help organizations lead from a perspective of inclusion. Feel free to contact me at my email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like additional information.
Perhaps the lesson I reflect on the most, is that I have worked (with a great staff team) every year to provide a place that young people come to and strive to be the version of their best self. I am grateful for the opportunity to have glimpses of my best self along the way. Let’s continue to strive to create a world where we don’t need to have a “foreigner’s cabin.”
(If you are interested in learning more about serving at a camp through an exchange program, please contact my friend Jeff at the International Exchange of North America - IENA, or one of the many other programs that help place leaders in summer camp settings.)