Summer Camp Shines as a Beacon of Social Progress
LEAF RIVER, IL – Acts of hate and racism, whether online or in person, are painfully visible these days,” said Phillip Martin, a senior investigative reporter at WGBH, a contributing reporter to PRI’s “The World.” The US Department of Justice has noted a sharp increase in hate crimes. One summer camp has a proactive approach to celebrating and appreciating diversity. This summer, Camp Kupugani, a multicultural camp for children ages 7 to 15, celebrates its thirteenth summer of creating positive change by empowering campers in an intentionally diverse environment to value and appreciate the difference.
Directed by Kevin Gordon and his wife Natasha Jackson, Kupugani is the only private, residential summer camp facility in the United States with black owners. Their multicultural program allows children of different cultures and backgrounds to come together for fun and to learn empowerment and social intelligence skills. Youth who have essential, interactive experiences with a diverse population can foster an understanding of the perspectives of children from different backgrounds and learn to function in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment. This is especially critical when the adult experience sometimes reflects a polarization. Says Gordon, “If we want to change, it’s essential to keep bringing kids together to really learn from each other. This past summer we added a specific social justice program that helps our campers better understand how they can take what is learned at camp and apply it beyond”.
Kupugani fulfills a need for an interactive, multicultural program fostering diversity. A scarcity of overnight camps does that. An American Camp Association survey shows that, at independent, for-profit residential camps, 89% of the campers are white, less than 4% black or African-American, less than 4% Hispanic/Latino(a), just over 2% Asian, and just over 1% biracial. Contrast that with Kupugani’s campers, who are roughly 40% White/Caucasian, 35% Black/African-American, 10% biracial, 10% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. Its staff is also diverse. Staff member Chloe Besser has spent eleven years at Kupugani; according to her, “It is one of the only places that truly and effectively teach compassion–and strong enough to transcend barriers that can be divisive in other environments.”
During Kupugani’s first twelve summers, children of varied backgrounds have lived, played, and worked together, instilling bonds of friendship and trust. “It’s great to see campers coming together from a variety of backgrounds, different states, and different countries. Bringing kids together at camp helps further understanding in circumstances that they may face outside of camp,” says Jackson, a school teacher, and kitchen manager at Camp Kupugani. The camp’s parents speak to the program’s effectiveness; in camp surveys, overwhelming majorities noted their child’s improvement in acknowledgment and appreciating diversity, conflict resolution skills, and personal growth/self-confidence.
Dwight White, the father of two campers, expresses the importance of early exposure to people of differing cultures: “We come from a fairly small town, and our children don’t have much opportunity to meet a diverse group of people. To be able to spend time with people from different backgrounds and other countries is exactly what we want for our children. Typically, this wouldn’t be until they start college, but we are blessed enough to incorporate this at an earlier age. It truly does take a village.” Multi-year parent Kim McLean emphasizes: “[Camp Kupugani] combines summer camp fun with an intentional focus to help kids grow themselves as human beings. I view Camp K as having a vital purpose for this world, helping kids’ development in meaningful ways. Especially at this particular time when there’s so much hate in the world, I love that there’s a place that teaches kids about themselves and what the world can be, and does it through fun, challenge, laughter, and self-discovery.”
Camp Kupugani is accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), which verifies that the camp has complied with about 300 standards for health, safety, and program quality. The camp offers a two-week session for boys from June 16 – 29, 2019, a blended (intentionally co-ed) session from June 30 – 13, two- and four-week sessions for girls, from July 14 to August 10, a Mother-Daughter Weekend from August 16 – 18, and a Parent-Child Weekend from August 23 – 25.
 Extensive research of the major camp associations-American Camp Association, Association of Independent Camps, Midwest Association of Independent Camps, and Western Association of Independent Camps-has revealed no private residential camp majority-owned and directed by persons of color. For a person of color to even direct-much less own-a residential camp is rare: a 2007 ACA nationwide study reveals that, of over 500 respondent accredited camps, less than 1% of directors are black, and 95% are Caucasian.
 Statistic provided by the US Department of Justice 2017 Hate Crime Statistic Report. https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/hate-crime-statistics
The American Experience Varies
We are Camp Kupugani–an overnight summer camp 90 minutes west of Chicago. We are in the United States of America, a nation which purports to have equal opportunity for all. Camp Owner/Director Kevin is a brown man. Camp admin Aaron is white (beige-ish really). Their American experience varies.
What Aaron can do that Kevin cannot:
- Without realistic fear of being shot, Aaron can reach into the glove compartment if pulled over by police during a car stop.
- Aaron can go into any store without the perception or reality of being followed or watched.
- Aaron can feel safe in an all-white neighborhood.
- Aaron can comfortably wear a hoodie into a building without being followed or watched very closely on the CCTV
- Without any effort on his part, Aaron can be in the company of people of his “race” most of the time.
- Aaron can turn on the TV (well, Netflix mostly) and see people of his race widely represented.
- When discussing national “American” heritage, Aaron is shown most of the time that people of his complexion made it what it is.
- Aaron does not have to be a “representative” of his race by having negative attributes generalized from him or be asked to speak for all white people.
- (Except for at camp), Aaron is assured that, when asking to speak to someone “in charge,” he will then face a similarly-complected person.
- If he wanted to–Aaron could take a job with an affirmative action employer or be admitted to an affirmative action school and not have colleagues perceive, believe, or outright state that the only reason he got it was because of race.
What Kevin can do that Aaron cannot:
- Kevin can sing along to songs with the word “nigger” in it, with relatively few consequences.
- Kevin can walk through a predominantly black neighborhood and feel safe.
What Kevin can’t do that Aaron probably could if he wanted to:
- Aaron could be seated in a high-end restaurant and not feel like he’s being seated anywhere in particular because of his complexion.
- Aaron has not been unwittingly mistaken for a server at a camp wedding.
- Aaron does not worry about having the police called on him, if he were to drop off ice skates for sharpening in a white neighborhood in a small town.
- Aaron is confident that, if he one day has a similarly-complected child, that his child won’t be harassed, arrested, or killed because of his complexion before turning 30.
- Aaron has never been stopped for “driving while white.”
The American experience varies.
How We Celebrate and Appreciate Identity at Camp Kupugani
At Camp Kupugani, our Midwest summer camp not far from Madison, Wisconsin (and also convenient to Chicago, Illinois), we strive to help campers celebrate and appreciate themselves and others in all aspects of identity. We intentionally move beyond “clumping” (hanging out only with those who we perceived to be exactly like us) to interact with a variety of people in our cabins, teams, tables, and camp activities.
Research shows that early exposure to people that are different than you helps you to become more understanding/welcoming as an adult. We pride ourselves in drawing a diverse range of campers, including but not limited to campers from almost a dozen different countries and almost a dozen American states.
We are not a camp affiliated with a particular religion or belief system. To support identity and empowerment, before each meal, we observe ten seconds of silence, so that folks who want to recognize the meal individually in any non-intrusive manner can do so.
Christians, Muslims, Non-religious, Hindus, Buddhists…All have felt welcomed and supported at Kupugani. Many camps restrict such conversation; at Kupugani, to create a greater level of understanding, people are empowered to speak openly and respectfully about their belief system and those of others.
Cisgender or gender non-conforming, we strive to maintain a community where children and adults should feel safe and free. Complected of various shades and hues, our campers and staff are given a safe space where they can share and celebrate their identity–one chosen by themselves and not necessarily thrust upon them by others. (For example, as a Canadian-born child of Jamaican immigrants, many classify me as “African-American” or “Black”–which are fine, but I can also choose to identify as “brown”, “Jamaican-Canadian”, “hockey player”, “Papa”, “husband”, “camp director”, or whatever…it’s not on others to label me…)
At Kupugani, we strive to make sure that everybody involved in camp is supported, uplifted, and feels at home.
Why I No Longer Use the Words “Diversity” or “Diverse”
When we started our multicultural summer camp for kids twelve summers ago, we celebrated the word “diversity”. It was all over our web site and elevator speeches. I bragged about how we were “diverse” and reveled in our “diversity.” That was then.
Now, the word “diversity” has a host of non-positive connotations. It has become a negative code word signifier for non-white male. There are now negative implications of using the word. Instead of the narrow, now-negative term of “diversity,” we should strive for “equity.” Perhaps, as we continue to move forward with our human progress, we can celebrate and appreciate true diversity at camp and in the larger world, and maybe in time getting back to where the term isn’t a negative.
“Diversity” has become a negative code word for non-white male, used often by white males, meaning…
“all those other folks.” In this context, the word provides white males with a cover for inaction. When confronted with trying to create a culturally competent workplace or other broadening of horizons, they can use the maneuver of saying, “I don’t know how to do this or put in the hard work, so can someone else please do the work for me?” 1
There are now negative implications of using the word.
“Diversity” sometimes signals quotas to be filled rather than authentically valuing people.
At the biggest firms, women and non-whites continue to make up a small percentage of the white collar work force. The few exceptions to this rule are held up as evidence of widespread change–as if a few individuals by themselves constitute diversity.2
When the word is proudly invoked in a corporate context…it can give a person or instutitution moral credibilty, a phonemenon that Nancy Leong, a University of Denver law professor, calls “racial capitalism” and defines as “an individual or group deriving value from the racial identity of another person.” It’s almost as if cheerfully and frequently uttering the word diversity equals doing the work of actually making it a reality.3
…small victories are often overenthusiastically celebrated as evidence of larger change. In 2017, for example, when Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress in a Drama Series Emmy, the moment was cheered in the press as a triumph of racial equity in Hollywood. But just a month before, Stacy L. Smith, a professor of communication at U.S.C. who, with other researchers, had just released a damning report that studied gender bias in 700 films made between 2007 and 2014, lamented “the dismal record of diversity, not just for one group, but for females, people of color and the L.G.B.T. Community.” 4
There are differing conceptions of term, depending on the background of the person using it.
Adding to the ambiguity is the fact that the definition of “diversity” changes depending on who is doing the talking. The dictionary will tell you that it is “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas,” and the word is often used, without controversy, to describe things like the environment and stock-market holdings. Diversity is a positive bio-concept, but, when applied to people—the notion of diversity feels more fraught, positioning one group (white, male Americans) as the default, and everyone else as the Other. Multiple studies suggest that white Americans understand “diversity” much different than black Americans. When Reynolds Farley, a demographer at the University of Michigan, researched the attitudes of people in Detroit about the racial composition of neighborhoods in 1976, 1992 and 2004, most African-Americans considered “integrated” to be a 50/50 mix of white and black, while a majority of whites considered such a ratio much too high for their comfort each time the study was conducted. 5
Overuse has diminished the term.
The word “diversity” has become so muddled that it loses much of its meaning. It has gone from communicating something idealistic to something cynical and suspect. This has happened via a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia and self-serving intentions. 6
It has become both euphemism and cliche, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously. 7
Golden Globe–winning screenwriter, director, and producer Shonda Rhimes favors a more progressive term: “normalizing.” 8
Jeff Chang, author of 2014’s “Who We Be: The Colorization of America” prefers “equity” to “diversity.” 9
“‘Diversity’ is like ‘Ugh, I have to do diversity.’ I recognize and celebrate what it is, but that word, to me is a disconnect. There’s an emotional disconnect. ‘Inclusion’ feels closer; ‘belonging’ is even closer.” 10
Pursuit of equity and progress for all is why we celebrate and appreciate true diversity at camp.
Pursuit of equity and cultural competence at at all levels need not be just racial, i.e. background, culture, family structure, socioeconomic.
We can and should normalize storytelling from the perspective of ethnic and other minority groups, making them the standard rather than the exception. 11
“You should get to turn on your TV and see your tribe,” …“Your tribe can be any kind of person, anyone you identify with—anyone who feels you, who feels like home, who feels like truth.” 12
6Paraphrase from Id.
7Paraphrase from Id.
Brown Man Thanks Monroe Police Department for Stopping Him
Dear Monroe Police Department (okay…maybe just two specific members of the Monroe PD…but that takes a lot more words than I feel like right now…)
Dear Monroe PD…I really must say thanks.
Thanks for reinforcing for me how much my son loves me.
Thanks for reminding me how much I trust and value my wife and my life.
Thanks for reinforcing for me that my choice of profession–as a director of a summer camp where we intentionally bring together children of varied backgrounds–is an especially important one.
Thanks so much for inspiring me to provide a teaching moment for about 20-25 children who otherwise wouldn’t have a direct chance to deal with issues of race and authority.
So thanks Monroe PD. I appreciate you for all of the above.
Okay, so maybe there was no benevolent intent. All of the above benefits resulted from my being apprehended for not even driving, but walking while black…or maybe more spefically, dropping off at someone’s back door ice skates for sharpening while black.
I guess I should have known better…that slowing down to look for an address meant (according to Mapquest) to be on the left side of the street might arouse “suspicion.” I guess I should have known that getting out of the car, skates in hand to cross first to one side of the street then the other to drop said skates at the back door of the sports shop…before hustling back to the car (since the sub-30 degree temps made me long for the relative warmth of the car parked quite legally on the street with its lights on) might not be the most strategic choice for a brown man to make in small town U.S.A.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that first one police car, then another—lights flashing—would quickly arrive in front of my car. Not quite blocking an exit but ready just in case I suppose.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at how quickly my feeling of impotence, powerlessness, and simultaneous fear at what these two officers might do—how quickly those feelings arose. Inside me, a conflict raging between anger at why I’m being accosted and the need to make sure I get home alive. So I make sure that I ask them if it’s okay to sit in my car, hands carefully at 10 and 2 on the wheel. I ask them if it’s okay if I reach into my bag on the front seat to retrieve my wallet since they’ve asked for ID.
I know that the result of my making a poor decision or wrong move can result in my wife becoming a widow or my son becoming fatherless. So that’s a hard thing to cope with while filled with impotent rage knowing I’ve done nothing wrong, knowing that the feeling of powerlessness combined with shame combined with I don’t know what courses through me.
Eventually, it’s over, and I’m “free” to go on my way. My ID checked out I suppose, or whatever it is that happens.
I’ve apparently grown complacent in my older years…thinking that the days of my being routinely stopped while driving while black, or walking while black (yes, twice before!) were in the past. I thought that DWB (and WWB) stops were just for me as a younger brown man, but I guess not, since I’m now solidly a middle-aged (or slightly beyond, whatever almost 50 is…) brown man. I was wrong to be complacent. It still feels terrible; it still feels helpless; it still feels hopeless.
Nevertheless, I say thank you Monroe PD. On the way back to pick up my son (whom I had left at the rink to run what I thought was my quick skate-sharpening errand), I could call my wife and cry and have snot run down my nose and spray the steering wheel (thanks Subway for the extra napkins…came in handy for cleanup). She loves me and I know that.
I say thank you Monroe PD. My son was among those gathered around me during my return to the rink—when I was unable to quietly explain to another team parent why I was without words…but then finding words, loud words, loud words with lots of profanity (from someone who rarely swears). Words that brought the bantam practice to a standstill, words that brought from the gathered parents expressions of dismay? concern? confusion? pity? non-comprehension? My son, understanding what happened, able to convey (then and after our return home) that his love is boundless.
I say thank you Monroe PD. The kids (and a coach or two) from the now-interrupted bantam practice, with looks of concern? confusion? dismay? Non-comprehension? perhaps hearing me as I implored them to truly interact with people different from themselves. Maybe their generation will get it right.
I say thank you Monroe PD. The parent or three who expressed genuine concern as I gathered equipment (and my child) to put in the car. I appreciate them for being quality people, and am hopeful that maybe now they might understand a little more about what happens sometimes when the “other” meets the “authority.”
Dare to Embrace Difference
I hope that you are well, or as well as you can be during these tumultuous times. Depending on your worldview, you might be considering what to do in response to the what you see in the larger world—to defend rights, to counter hateful rhetoric, to rebuild movements and momentum for positive change.
I ask that you support Kupugani and our mission to continue to create a version of the world that we want to see—where issues of difference can be celebrated, and our commonalities can be recognized and appreciated.
Even as some turn inwards and reinforce only those viewpoints that reinforce their own echo chamber, we recognize that there is crucial work ahead so that we can come together. The work needs to continue as individuals and build from there.
Like Whitney Houston back in the day, I genuinely believe that children are the future. We can teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Okay, enough of the lyrics…but the kiddos are truly the way forward.
We have the choice right now, right here, to build on progressive visions of togetherness, inclusion, and true diversity of culture, background, and thought, if we are committed to focus our efforts and attention.
Please help Kupugani continue to foster change, Help us inspire future young people to be compassionate, caring, and open to outcomes.
Are You Culturally Competent? Do You Want to Be?
Are You Culturally Competent? Find Out Here
Especially in today’s social climate, it is increasingly important to be mindful and respectful of people of a variety of backgrounds. It can be all too easy to demonize and denigrate someone who you classify as “other”. If you think you’ve got what it takes, check out our fun, informative quiz to see if you are culturally competent.
Recognizing Bias to Work Toward Cultural Competence
At our summer camp outside of Chicago, we strive to achieve cultural competence as an organization, as counselors and staff, and as role models for young people. Our goal is not to be “colorblind” or to negate differences, but rather to celebrate and appreciate ourselves as individuals, while striving to be a community that continually progresses positively. Part of being able to be culturally competent is recognition of innate biases that we may have, so that we can act accordingly to adjust or realize our behavior. Check out this link for a great tool to help recognize automatic preferences that you have given certain circumstances. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html
20 Minutes in the Day of a Brown Man in America
Today was a good day…I guess. A cop followed me for 15 minutes as I drove from small town Illinois to next small town Illinois…staying 5 yards behind me consistently, while I, wary and weary, locked the cruise control to exactly the speed limit. First 30 miles per hour, then 40, then 45, then 55, then back to 30.
The last time I had been followed for that long for that distance—that time in medium town Illinois—I had locked the cruise to 5 miles per hour above below the speed limit, before being pulled over for purportedly driving too slow. Another time in the same medium town, being followed for a slightly shorter distance, I locked it at 5 mph above and got pulled over for purportedly driving too fast. Both times, other, non-brown drivers were driving faster/slower than my “extremes.”
Indeed, DWB (driving while black/brown for the unitiated) has been a real thing in my life, beginning over 30 years ago during my late teenage years in the US. It had been a consistent, roughly annual event, until about ten years ago–after moving to rural Illinois, when suddenly, surprisingly, the DWBs stopped occurring. (Although it could also be just because I drove less…) It seemed all good until my 1st DWB in my rural Illinois county brought all the helpless, annoyed, frustrated feelings back.
Frustration like recalling a surprising WWB (walking while black/brown) offense in Chicago, as I was walking to the subway before being accosted and thrown onto a police car hood by a police officer purportedly looking for someone who “fit my description.” That insult compounded by the insult of him patting me down and demanding to see what was in my hoodie jacket pocket…a book.
So I suppose today was a good day, since I never actually got pulled over…as the cop eventually turned down a side street. (But my fantasy of my choosing to following him at the same distance went unaddressed, as I continued instead on my travels homeward…)
So today was a good day. A day when I could continue to imagine that life in my rural cocoon means that I might get individual treatment instead of that of a member of a subjugated group. Although the fear I felt by being followed—and maybe about to be stopped again…for no reason…well, no good reason anyway—jumped my heart rate as usual.
(A few days earlier, I saw the movie Hidden Figures, going with white friends who, as white folks, I assume didn’t share my visceral reaction when the African-American characters in the early part of the movie (set in the early 60s) felt significant apprehension when their broken down car was approached by a policeman. So maybe today was a good day for me, not being the early 60s and all.)
Continuing homeward, I stopped to get some gas. My pump was adjacent to that of a middle-aged white lady in a mid-luxury SUV. She made sure to lock her car twice when she went into the store briefly to pay. So maybe it wasn’t as good a day as I’d like.
(Then I looked across the street at a Subway store where, a month prior, a different middle-aged white lady had paid for my sub for no bad reason. That was a good day.)
As I drove away from the gas station, sun shining, the satellite radio flipped through a Kenny Chesney “No Shoes Radio” station; the white country singer playing a nice reggae-tinged song with one of Bob Marley sons. I continued homeward, looking forward to a summer with kids of varied backgrounds coming together at camp and becoming friends. Maybe it was a good day after all.