Outreach and Inclusion Coordinator
“The community we are striving to create [at BYM camps] reminds us of the hope that we have for this world. However, even as we share this joy, we know we are not divorced from the current events of a world in great turmoil…Fear, sadness, bigotry, and hate are realities that we face…And still, we know that our diverse identities and life experiences—the very things that have led to so much violence and discord in parts of the country and world—can also bring us together if we are willing to live our values.”
–Excerpted from family letter sent by the camping program, July 2016
Across the United States, this year has been hard for those who value equity and peace. It has challenged us to face and process some very painful truths, while at the same time trying to hold a picture of hope that can keep us moving forward. At times like these, it feels more important than ever that the camping program takes on growing together in hope and showing up for each other in the hard places. BYM’s newly expanded STRIDE (Strengthening Transformative Relationships in Diverse Environments) program, formerly the Working Group on Diversity at Camps, is an exciting opportunity to do this.
Started in 2009 as a program to increase authentic diversity at Catoctin by bringing campers from Philadelphia, STRIDE has expanded into 2 new cities this year, and into Opequon, Shiloh, and Teen Adventure, thanks to a generous 3-year grant by the Shoemaker Foundation. STRIDE now provides additional supports to the long-time efforts of many directors, staff, and volunteers to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout the camping program.
With the assistance of BYM’s Outreach and Inclusion Coordinator, STRIDE groups are run and led by a group of young adult “core members” (both with and without experience in the camping program) and supported by volunteers of all ages. During the year, groups meet bi-weekly to do the work of supporting diversity including providing funding, gear, transportation, and orientation for campers of color from neighboring cities. This year STRIDE supported 19 campers from Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore, hosted 8 family events for STRIDE families, and raised over $20,000 toward camper fees which are not covered by the grant. The STRIDE program also supports training, reflection, and logistical support around inclusion for camp staff, including 8 training and consulting sessions this summer (2 at each camp) and a 2-day training for BYM office staff.
Sunshine (Lexi) Klein is a 6th year Shiloh counselor, who joined DC STRIDE this fall after seeing the program in action during the summer. As a child, Sunshine found out about camp at Friends Meeting School and it became a safe haven for her as her parents went through a painful divorce. She described it saying “that 2 weeks at camp [each summer] was what I needed to be a person.” Laughing, she continued, “I attribute any social skills I have, any leadership, any compassion I have in my heart to my time at camp.” This theme of growth was echoed by Shaunta Farrane-Pleasant, parent of a family with 5-years and 3-children in the camping program. One of the early STRIDE families, she stated that over the years, “[my children] always come back more mature. I love the fact they come back excited, considerate, thoughtful–and tired!”
As members of the camp community grow personally, they strengthen and support those around them. One STRIDE camper in her third year, supported others by sharing her journey with intense homesickness. “Most times I’ve been to camp, I was homesick,” she said, “but this time I wasn’t and got the whole camp experience.” As someone well-versed in that feeling, she became an expert for other homesick campers in her unit, with one parent commenting that her child talked extensively during visiting day about using strategies this bunk-mate had taught her. This cyclical and reciprocal aspect of the camp program was further highlighted by Shonda Jones, a longtime camp mom in STRIDE who said: “Camp has been a continuous, positive place for the children, from old rituals to new experiences…The camp [has] great support, mentors, and friends. Hopefully, my children will continue the legacy.” Indeed they have, with one completing his Unit 1 year this summer and the other giving back as a counselor and member of several BYM committees.
Showing Up for Each Other
Clearly, this community has the potential to create spaces of hope, growth, and togetherness, and sometimes the way we do that is by acknowledging the things that are hard. This was the case for Jamie DeMarco, a trip leader at Teen Adventure as well as a former Catoctin camper and Shiloh counselor. “I remember growing up and going to camp and feeling like it was this perfect place.” He said before recalling a skills-week workshop at Shiloh during which he realized that while camp does so much good, it also has aspects that advantage some groups over others. He joined STRIDE through a desire to apply the social justice lens he uses in the rest of his life to a place he considers home. “I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘What does it look like to be a white ally…and I’m excited about combining my unabashed love of camp with a need to do more than just reposting things on Facebook.”
Within the STRIDE model, what is done is important, and so is how it’s done. STRIDE uses practical action to spur reflection and reflection to inform the action taken. “One thing that I want people to understand is that we’re not doing this just to do it….” Sunshine asserted. “We’re not ‘giving this opportunity to needy children’. We’re trying to make [camp] better for everyone.” This, she contended, means acknowledging where we might take shortcuts in connecting to people, both those we think of as different from ourselves and those we think of as part of our ‘in-group’. When people all come from the same place, have the same race, or class, or “you know, are all from Sandy Spring”, she stated, “it’s easy to talk to them as if they are all the same person.” Having diversity in the camps, she suggests, reminds us all that “in order to make camp for everyone we need to do things differently for different kids.”
Maria Adamson, Assistant Director of Opequon and current Philly STRIDE member, has drawn the same conclusion: “What’s so exciting to me about diversity and inclusion at BYM camps is the attempt to keep ‘shifting the center’.” Regular opportunities for reflection during the summer at Opequon (and other BYM camps) on where that center is help staff keep this present and active. “… Even when camp is a challenge, you see campers feel ownership and belonging. And that’s really special…”
Maria’s fellow STRIDE core member, Tajae Bradley, a first year counselor at Catoctin, expressed the power of this phenomenon to connect people even while tackling things that could be considered divisive. Though all staff bare responsibility for creating a community of inclusivity with campers, some staff of color this summer were feeling more of this weight. This led to a powerful and thoughtful staff meeting about community, accountability, and tactics for moving forward. By looking at this hard dynamic, staff were able to build hope toward a different outcome. Looking back Tajae shared: “At post camp, we did an exercise where we looked [in the eyes of] each staff member for 30 seconds. During it I remembered every moment that I appreciated, the times they corrected inappropriate [camper comments] or [gave support] where I was uncomfortable.” By the end of the exercise, many of those eyes had filled with tears.
For more details on STRIDE, contact Dyresha Harris at OIC@bym-rsf.org.