Caring for Campers of Color — Anti-Racism at Camp

What good is it to recruit new Black campers to camp if they don’t feel safe and welcomed while there?

Sunscreen on a camper of color
Sunscreen on a camper of color

It is time to identify and update our practices so that all campers feel physically and emotionally safe while at camp.

If we aren’t a specifically religious camp, we must ask ourselves what practices do we have that fall back on the idea of Christian as the default? In the US, we don’t often realize how pervasive Christianity can be.

Camps with specifically religious themes are a bedrock of the camping world and shouldn’t go away. But if you market your camp as secular or independent, and still have vespers or chapel ceremonies, how do your campers feel that don’t share your faith?

Camps sometimes use a song before meals, which can work but does make it harder for those who want to say a specific prayer silently. A moment of silence before a meal is a good way to make sure everyone has the opportunity to say their own prayer in their own way.

Camps need to make room in our schedule and ceremonies for followers of different faiths without calling out the differences if they don’t want to share. Some campers may need time throughout the day to pray in their own way. They should be allowed to without having to teach everyone about what they are doing. Be open to conversations with parents about how you can meet their camper’s religious needs.

Many camps have outdoor or wilderness appreciation central to our mission. Getting kids outside, away from screens, to just be kids, is a big part of what we do.

But emphasis on “wilderness appreciation” is one reason that some families might NOT want their children to go to camp.

One of my best friends, who is Black, has often said to me “My parents worked too hard, and I have worked too hard, to have a house, with a bed. NO, I do not want to go camping with you and sleep on the ground.” To be fair, I have white friends who have said similar things.

It is easy to see that the outdoors may not be as appealing if you have experienced homelessness and had to live in a tent or in your car. Sleeping outside is something that people work really hard to not HAVE to do, or for their children to not have to. “Appreciating the outdoors” assumes one is coming from a place of privilege, where you have the option not to.

Beyond sleeping arrangements, there are plenty of other elements of the great outdoors that might be less than appealing for a family or camper:

  • Bugs
  • Provide proactive education on how to properly use bug repellent
  • Provide information in packing lists about clothing fabrics and colors that repel insects
  • Provide protective clothing and repellent for campers receiving financial aid
  • Wildlife
  • Be honest about the wildlife at your camp, what are the dangers, and how do you mitigate the risk
  • Provide proactive education about preventing interactions
  • Toileting
  • Make restroom facilities clear in your marketing
  • Share plans for how often campers can shower
  • Don’t surprise folks by not having flush toilets, and also don’t let them assume they have to poop in the woods if they don’t

As we see the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on people of color in the US, it should be clear that healthcare is another cog in the systemic racism machine. From the Tuskegee trials, to Henrietta Lacks, to gynecological slavery by James Marion Sims, it isn’t hard to see why Black people may have a historic mistrust of the medical system.

In order to keep our campers healthy and safe, we need to improve the medical care that we can give them.

Specifically in the US, simple access to affordable healthcare can be a barrier to participation in camp. If campers have to have a physical to attend, we need to at least provide a list of resources where campers can get free or low-cost physicals. Also, provide access to information about state ACA resources, or low-cost insurance to cover campers while at camp.

Inquire about anti-bias practices for our nurses or medical staff. They should have training on recognizing skin conditions on melanated skin. Medical staff should be included in all anti-racist trainings that your camp staff attend, but should have additional training related to caring for campers of color. What does a tick bite or poison ivy look like on Black skin? The lack of training for medical professionals regarding Black skin is becoming better known, but is still a problem. Who is better than camp nurses to make this resource for the world?

One of the top reasons to have staff at camp that look like your campers is to help teach all campers good hygiene skills. Caring for textured hair and Black skin is different from white.

Have someone on staff who can help out campers, especially those younger than know how to help themselves.

  • Black skin CAN and DOES get sunburned
  • Black skin usually needs extra moisturizer, ashy skin can lead to cracks, which can lead to infection like any other wound
  • Black hair generally doesn’t need to be washed as frequently
  • If a camper comes with braids, know that they were expensive and time-consuming to put in, and shouldn’t be removed because other campers want to play with Black hair
  • Braids also do not need to be removed for washing.

Black and Indigenous people of color have to face systemic racism in access to health care in their everyday lives. Let’s make sure they get the care they need to be healthy at camp.

I am a mixed-race Kanaka maoli (Hawai’i) and white summer camp director. I use she/her pronouns. I live on the ancestral lands of the Duwamish people, past and present. I speak for myself and from my own lived experience. I still have work to do.

Click to see the Other Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction to Anti Racism in Summer Camps
  2. White Fragility Anti Racism in Summer Camps
  3. Cultural Appropriation
  4. Diversifying Summer Camp Staff
  5. Marketing and Recruiting Campers
  6. Why a Campership program isn’t enough
  7. Caring for Campers of Color

We are thrilled to be welcoming Leilani Nussman as a writer on the Go Camp Pro blog! Leilani is a Camp Pro from the US Northwest and she has spent her summer as part of our Camp Mavericks discussion on Racism, Privilege and Summer Camp. I was THRILLED when she asked if she could capture her thoughts on Anti Racism and summer camp in this space.

Anti Racism & Summer CampTravis Allison15 September 2020

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