Our Justice Systems are Broken — Anti-Racism at Summer Camp

To be Black in America is to walk in the valley of the shadow of pain and death. The fact that Black people still manage to carry on and create and find joy and love in the valley is nothing short of a miracle.

And right now, our love of #BreonnaTaylor is filling us with rage.

Sign on light post saying
Sign on light post saying

To not indict the officers for murder is to claim #BreonnaTaylor killed herself. Racist America constantly kills Black people and then tells Black people we killed ourselves. Racism extends past death. But we’ll never stop declaring that our lives matter, that our deaths matter. — Ibram X Kendi, 9/23/2020

Daniel Cameron is on Donald Trump’s short list as replacement of #RGB on the Supreme Court. The same man who decided to not charge the officers responsible for killing #BreonnaTaylor. Vote. — Kerry Washington, 9/23/2020

The US justice system is broken. Actually, no it isn’t broken. It’s working exactly as it was designed. It needs to be re-designed.

Consider your camp’s relationship with the local police. There are plenty of good reasons to have a good working relationship with first responders in your area. Medical response and fire are absolutely resources that we hope to never need, but need to have on hand.

Police, on the other hand, may not make campers of color feel as safe. Especially campers who may have had negative experiences with school resource officers in the past, or have been stopped for walking-while-Black on the street. Your personal good relationship with your local officer does not mean that systemic law enforcement works for campers of color.

While local law enforcement might present a danger to Black campers, other populations face similar dangers from federal enforcement, especially ICE, in the US. Decide now what your response will be if they show up at your camp looking for a camper or asking about a family.

The racist systems that give rise to the school-to-prison pipeline can endanger children at camp. Black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students for the same infractions. In a 2016 study by the US Department of Education, Black students made up 15% of the school population nationwide but accounted for 31% of the law enforcement referrals and 39% of suspended students.

Suspension and expulsion from school then lead to decreased school attendance, increased antisocial behavior such as drug use, and long-term gaps in wages and career success.

Camps often have the luxury of more resources than public schools. We need to make sure that we are using our resources to disrupt racism, not add to it. We are lucky that we generally are not in the business of making kids sit and listen or do worksheets for hours at a time, but there are times when we expect something close to that.

What are we doing to make sure that behavior management is being applied equally across all campers?

Schools with “No Tolerance” policies are often the worst for criminalizing normal childhood behavior. Camps with “No Tolerance” policies fall trap to enacting the same. Also, there is racial bias at work when exceptions to those no tolerance policies are made.

We have tolerance; we tolerate a lot. Counselors trained in anti-bias, de-escalation, and trauma-informed care working through behavior issues with campers will be more effective than automatically sending them home.

Black children are more likely than their white peers to be called “troublemakers”, “defiant”, or “disruptive”, and met with extreme punishment for breaking minor rules like:

  • dress code infractions
  • writing on their desk
  • having Tylenol in their bag
  • cutting in line

Medications like Tylenol need to be stored according to your accreditation guidelines. If I find that a camper has a bottle of over-the-counter meds, I move them to the nurse’s office and explain the rules. I am not going to send that camper home.

All of these behaviors should be addressed but through restorative justice, not removal from the program.

Does your camp have a planned response for use of the n-word?

White administrators of camp can get caught between tone-policing and trying to set a good example of proper language in different situations. White folks, including campers of any age, should NEVER use this word. That is hate speech.

At most camps, the use of the n-word between Black campers should be treated the same as cursing. It’s not okay but it’s not hate speech.

If families use this word among themselves at home, campers will use it at camp, even if they know they shouldn’t. Think about how hard we have to work not to laugh when a 4-year-old echoes the F-word they heard at home.

This is a good example, however, of the fact that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are not a monolith. Different families, different populations, and different people will have different opinions about language use, and that’s okay. The main thing is that we know our response, and will be anti-racist and act accordingly when language is used.

Camp is the chance that kids might not get at school to be loved by an adult who really does have their best interests at heart. Whenever I get a call to come help with a behavior problem, before I leave my office, I make sure to take a deep breath and look at the sign above my desk with a paraphrased quote from Russell Barkley: “The Campers who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.”

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.

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Anti Racism & Summer CampTravis Allison23 September 2020

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