Camp & Communities of Color
Summer camp is a transformative space for both the children and staff alike. These young people (and their families) put their faith in us to be supportive and intentional. As camp leaders, we have a tremendous responsibility to give our community valuable skills and a sense of belonging.
Still, summer camp is often a “white” space. That is, many communities of color are wary about signing up for the miracle of summer camp because of historical inequities around admission, access, and culture at camps. If we want to move into the future of summer camp, it’s imperative that we think critically about how we attract, engage, support, and celebrate people of color.
Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion is not an easy task. It requires soul-searching, courage, and healthy doses of humility and openness. For these reasons and others, DEI work in some industries is under attack or quietly disappearing. As shepherds of children, we have a responsibility to tackle this head-on and ensure that the young people in our charge are prepared to live in community with each other. To that end, diversifying your community is a great step in achieving that goal!
Where to Start
- Be honest about your goals. Many camps want to diversify their staff and camper population to appeal to parents who perceive any primarily white space to be problematic. They attempt to lure people of color to their programs without building appropriate support. Building that support takes time, effort, and intention to get right. If filling every bed is the goal, it’s harder to perceive what challenges already exist that hamper DEI efforts. Be intentional about increasing diversity and understand the limitations you have before inviting new groups in.
- Be honest with your community. If you want to walk the walk, you have to talk the talk. If diversity and inclusion are important to your camp, then announce it. On your website, to potential staff, families, to campers, to everyone. This visibility will open up conversations and perhaps expose blindspots in the culture of your camp. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. So let people know what you value and what you are trying to do even if you don’t know the “how” just yet.
- Be honest about your budget. Like any other project at camp, making a safer space will cost you money. Even with the best intentions and soul searching, you will fall short of making the space safe without professional help. Finding a consultant or staff trainer around issues of diversity will be a great investment. An outside person will be better at looking objectively at your culture, hiring practices, and employee training. Organizations are quick to say they don’t have the money for DEI but will spend thousands on new facilities or safety equipment. Think of DEI efforts as a type of safety equipment too. It protects staff and campers from being subject to microaggressions or other abuse.
The road to justice and equity is a long one and it has its challenges. In my work, camps are often embarrassed to get started on their DEI journey because they see it as an admission that they’ve turned a blind eye in the past. I’m here to tell you that the only time we have to begin a journey is now. Being thoughtful and forward-thinking about what we want our camp and greater communities to become will go a long way to contributing to a better and more inclusive society.
Chris Hudson is a social worker with over 30 years of camp experience. He founded and directed Camp Highlight, a sleepaway camp for children of LGBTQ+ families. Now, his goal as a camp consultant and staff trainer is to ensure that camp is available to all and that it remains a positive force in the lives of all young people without exclusion.