The Intersection of #MeToo and Summer Camp

According to Wikipedia, the #MeToo movement went viral in October 2017 after Alyssa Milano tweeted the following suggestion from a friend:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the problem.”

On the days following October 15, across the world, ‘Me Too” Facebook statuses, tweets, and Instagram posts were abundant. The stories seemed to be endless. Some shocking, others horrifying, and many, familiar.

Pandora’s box was opened. The curtain pulled back. Social media, for a few days, felt like a release valve had finally been turned. The gravity and magnitude of how many have been violated in their personal lives and, furthermore, in their professional careers became very real and very personal.

#MeToo was first used by Tarana Burke, a social activist and community organizer, on Myspace in 2006 in an effort to promote empowerment through empathy especially among women of color. The phrase “me too” came from Ms. Burke’s recounting of a story of a 13-year old disclosing abuse she had endured to Ms. Burke. Ms. Burke found that she had nothing to say in response and upon reflection, wished that she had simply said, “Me too.”

In the months following, Hollywood, news, and political figures were accused of a variety of acts against others ranging from harassment to assault. Some apologized. Others denied. Some remained silent.

And like that, the nation was thrust into a conversation about rape culture, gender, and equitable work environments.


What role does summer camp play in a #metoo world?

There are many lessons to be gleaned from the current events of the last year though first and foremost, camps have an obligation to create the space for staff to practice having honest and vulnerable conversations about what is happening in the non-camp world.

The camp bubble has been popped and as much as we may want to live in our own little worlds and ignore what is happening “out there,” this year parents will ask harder questions about harassment and abuse policies, teens will have walked out of school in support of gun control, and elementary age children have been asked what pronouns they prefer.

Summer camp has the opportunity to be the living laboratory where social experiments are conducted to see what a truly equitable world looks like. Summer camp is the world where everyone can be included and all are recognized and respected for their differences and strengths. The skills, rules, and commitments necessary to make radically inclusive environments can be determined, refined, and then shared to the rest of the world.

The rest of the world can’t immediately enact legislation that requires people to ask for consent before touching another person’s body. But summer camps can make that rule.

The rest of the world can’t just snap their fingers and say everyone must use non-binary gender pronouns, but summer camps can.

The rest of the world can’t instantly implement a brave space where conversations about privilege and intent versus impact happen respectfully. But summer camps can.

The rest of the world can’t simply say, “everybody put down your screens and talk to each other.” But summer camps can. And summer camps do.


What does summer camp look like in a #metoo world?

Call-in to a brave space

In the past when having challenging conversations, youth development professionals often used the term “safe space” to represent an environment where it was okay to speak up, share out, and challenge one another. However, the very definition of safe contradicts the experiences necessary to grow. To experience growth, one must take risks, be challenged, and have the opportunity to fail or stumble. By using the term “brave space,” camps, can instead, ask for bravery from the community, rather than promising the illusion of safety.

Bravery can be celebrated in your camp community. Imagine the staff member that says, “I’m a white male and I recognize that I have been privileged growing up and I still don’t understanding why the Black Lives Matter movement is such a big deal.” While this statement may sting some in the group, in a brave space, this staff member is acknowledged for his bravery to speak up and for offering the invitation for others to educate him.

Instead of calling him out as privileged or racist, there is the opportunity for this staff member to indicate to the group, “Hey, I want to know more and I am not totally sure how to ask. Help me understand.” And when staff step into that space with vulnerability and authenticity, those staff are able to take control of their own learning, open their minds and hearts to others’ experiences, and listen more fully to what is shared around them.

Consider setting aside time this summer for your staff to share what gender means to them personally and how they have come to understand their own and other gender identifications. Simply hearing from one another about what they have learned in the past can help those in the community have more empathy and understanding about where folks are coming from.

Offer your staff the opportunity to fill in the blank on the following statement and share out with others in the community: “It really bugs me when others ask me_________________.” Most camp directors hate being asked what they do the rest of the year and having the opportunity to share that frustration and talk about it further can be a true bonding experience between people. This same bonding experience can be extended to discussions about gender, race, religion, and other beliefs and values.

Teach consent to all

Consent education doesn’t just belong in sex education class. Consent education can be taught to all ages if you use the guiding principle that a person is the captain of their body and nobody can touch, change, feed, or enter that body without the captain’s permission. See the flow chart below about the difference between asking for consent and asking for cooperation in youth programming.

Consent education-2.jpg

Talk about trust and boundaries

With the prevalence of fake news and alleged atrocious acts from public figures, it can be impossible to know who to trust. There is much uncertainty today and anxiety about trusting the “right” people is rampant in both youth and adults. Encourage staff to use the word trust when appropriate with one another and with staff. Consider having staff discuss what it means to break trust and what are some of the boundaries around trust. Encourage a strong connection to self for campers and staff and a trust in their own beliefs, values, and boundaries. If something doesn’t feel right, encourage campers and staff to speak up and advocate for themselves.

Encourage action

In light of the March for Our Lives, it may be that campers or staff want to create their own movements. If a group of campers wants to put together a march to rally around a topic, ask how you can help. Ask questions about what they want to accomplish and offer guidance on how to plan programs or events that are effective and engaging for all. Consider a social justice evening program or an opportunity for campers to ask questions about what they are hearing about in the news. Perhaps that is an informal conversation that is sparked during a more sedentary activity.

If a camper brings up a controversial topic, use the technique that Scott Arizala teaches and encourage staff to say, “It seems like you are curious about XYZ. Tell me more about what you are wondering about.” By asking questions directed at the camper’s curiosity, rather than directed at the topic itself, it demonstrates to participants that the staff member may be able to engage in the conversation without shutting down the discussion because it is taboo and without sharing personal details from the staff member’s life.

Camp staff are professional role models and they can role model how to have conversations about controversial or uncomfortable topics in a respectful and professional way. Equip staff to ask campers about their evidence when a camper states strong beliefs or facts and to ask this question regardless of whether they believe the fact to be true or not so all in the community get used to evaluating and sharing their sources.

You don’t have to be an expert

One of the biggest hurdles to leading conversations around controversial topics is directors feeling like they are not experts in that topic. In this case, it is okay to show some vulnerability and authenticity and say, “I don’t have all the answers and I am interested to hear more about your experiences.” There may be a staff member who has expertise to share that may step up and voice their knowledge given the invitation. There may be questions or concerns around the topic that never occurred to you that will be brought up for the whole group, raising awareness of triggers, challenges, and frustrations that may have previously been unspoken.

Look at your own social media accounts and pay attention to what voices you are hearing. Are there podcasts that you can listen to that express opinions or experiences vastly different from your own? Are there Jnstagram accounts you can follow that will give you a glimpse into someone else’s life that is completely different from yours? Are there other camp directors or professionals in the area who want to talk about gender, equitable work places, social justice, and other issues that are relevant in local, regional, and national communities? Can you create the space for these conversations to happen? Yes, summer camps can.

Want help?

Consent education - Keep an eye on for a suite of materials to assist in bringing consent education to your camp from lesson plans to power points and handouts for staff and campers coming soon.

Delegate this - Hire me to come to your camp to facilitate these conversations and empower staff on the skills and tactics addressed above.

Hey those who identify as female in the camping industry! - Come to the first annual Women in Camping Summit in St Charles, IL November 7-9, 2018 where all kinds of discussions and presentations surrounding being a female camp professional will happen. This first year is only open to those who identify as female with plans to open the summit up to all genders in future years.