It seems I have a penchant for summer camps. Last summer, I was a sempai at GAKKO, an international summer camp in Bali for high school students. This summer, I went local. I was a summer camp counselor for Camp Common Ground. The purpose of the camp is to bring racially and economically diverse middle school students from the Bay Area and equip them with skills in intercultural competency, empathy, and leadership skills.
It was another summer camp experience for the books.
Never have I felt such a paradox-- I felt cynicism and hope simultaneously. Cynicism came from experiences such as one of the campers being sent home for sexually harassing other campers. Adding to the complexity was the background of the camper. His sister had been gunned down, his father in-and-out of jail, and a self-proclaimed desensitization because of endemic violence and poverty of his home. Being sent home from camp seems like a trivial matter when you're not sure if you will survive tomorrow. The realizations of a broken system sink in when another camp said that a teacher poured milk on him for misbehaving. Despite my job at Year Up, where I worked extensively with young adults from underserved populations, I was woefully underprepared for such interactions. As one of the co-directors of Camp Common Ground said, "It's all part of the work".
At the same time there were moments of hope. When you see young men of color vulnerably share hurtful experiences and console each other or when I saw middle schoolers from all different backgrounds gleefully Jig-a-Low, I saw steps being taken towards a world that embraces diversity.
As a camp counselor, there was a freedom that accompanies living in a cabin with eight 12-year olds for two weeks. I saw a real-time view of adolescence-- a time that was over a decade ago for me. The campers reminded me of forgotten aspects of childhood. As adults some of us need several cups of coffee to stay awake, whereas soda at the camp dance induced sugar-high giggles past midnight. As adults we perform for others to appease social conventions. For the campers, tears and laughter seemed to come so readily. Being responsible for 31 middle schoolers 24/7 was hard, but also refreshing.
If there's one thing nobody can take away from you, it's what you've learned. Knowledge is power, so education is political. It's experiences like Camp Common Ground that give me hope for dismantling the systemic injustices of the present.