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Multicultural education: the role of organized camping.

As the 20th century relinquishes its grasp, the world is being forced from many directions to seek new ways of viewing things. Racial, ethnic, religious and cultural "minorities," as well as disenfranchised groups, are finding new ways to celebrate their differences and the unique contributions each can make to society. The need for a better understanding and acceptance of diversity in society is readily apparent. Do camps and conference and retreat centers have a role to play in this process? Should the profession be concerned with multicultural education?

Defining Multicultural Education

What is multicultural education? Dr. James Banks, director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, suggests that multiculturalism offers a new way of viewing E Pluribus Unum. "You cannot take the many and make them one by imposing the one on many," Banks writes. "People on the margin must participate. We must validate their dreams and struggles, an they must participate in shaping the unum."

"So many... don't feel a part of this country," Banks continues. "Yet all our fates are tied together. We talk about kids who are at risk, but I think we are all at risk if we don't create a society that is united within a framework of shared values, like democracy and equality.... And that is what multicultural education is all about. It's really an education for freedom, freedom for all o us" (Banks, 1992).

The emphasis Banks places on shared values is important. Clearly, finding the places where these values are shared offers the best hope for the future and, not coincidentally, a tremendous opportunity for organized camp professionals t be part of the process.

Camp's Role in Socialization

All forms of outdoor education have long been recognized for their value in helping people get to know and appreciate each other, breaking down social barriers and promoting human understanding (Jordan, 1990; Miranda, 1990; Ohle, 1990; Webber and Walker-Troth, 1990). In a camp community under appropriate leadership, it is difficult to live and work together and rely on one another without gaining an appreciation for each other. Outdoor action experiences such as challenge or ropes courses are often designed to share the strengths and uniqueness of people, building a common base of experience. Greater attention could be given to using these techniques in a multicultural context to promote multicultural goals.

In fact, camping has been used by the multicultural education community recentl for just this purpose, building trust and breaking down barriers among inter-racial groups of teens (Punske, 1992). A number of exchange programs have been initiated by camps. Youngsters from around the world have been able to experience North American camps, and U.S. campers have been able to experience camps in other countries. These programs build on the efforts many camps have been making for years, including the use of counselors from overseas and the us of camperships and other incentives to bring more urban children to camp.

Much remains to be accomplished, however. An elitist image still remains at som camps, as do the discriminatory practices associated with those who have used organized camping to further their own ends.

Multiculturalism and Environmental Education

As a leading element in the environmental education movement, organized camping can find wonderful opportunities to incorporate multiculturalism with environmental education programs. Multiculturalism contributes to environmental education by reminding us that human beings, all human beings are, in fact, a part of the natural world, not apart from it. Outdoor programming can highlight examples of ecological diversity to encourage discussions about the value of cultural diversity.

A focus on multiculturalism can help temper the more extremist environmental positions by developing an appreciation for different perspectives. Through multiculturalism environmental educators may find the courage to accept differences among themselves, and learn to put these differences aside as they join in cooperation to empower learners.

Multiculturalism and Outdoor Education

Camps can build bridges to multicultural education through outdoor education. The key is to seek out those areas where a confluence of interest exists with regard to outdoor activities. By finding a common, shared interest, barriers ar more easily broken and crossed.

An example of such an area is fishing. Consistently, fishing as an outdoor activity receives strong interest regardless of racial, ethnic or cultural background, and regardless of physical abilities (Blahna, 1992; Missouri Department of Conservation, 1990; Murdock, et al, 1992; Ditton, 1992). Fishing, then, becomes a universal language, a common experience and interest shared by all.

Camps can use outdoor activities like fishing as a common starting point, as well as a shared experience on which to build new ones.

Some Problems to Avoid

While organized camping offers potential for multicultural education, it should not be done cosmetically. Putting a band-aid on racism does not alleviate the problem. Sara Bullard, editor of Teaching Tolerance magazine, describes a phenomenon where interracial solidarity is achieved in some situations, but doesn't last.

"It seems we can share in the exuberance of something that takes us beyond our individual selves, but we cannot share ourselves," Bullard writes. "We can dance, but we can't talk. We don't speak our minds when racially-charged topics arise. We don't expose our particular confusions and pain. We don't take risks, we don't invite inquiry, and we don't search for common ground." We consent to this racial isolation, Bullard says, "not became we don't want to connect, but because we don't know how" (Bullard, 1992). Organized camping should address this problem, making sure programs promote a deeper connection, going beyond th feel-good to the do-right.

Unfortunately, although innocently enough, organized camping does not always do right by the Native American cultures that provide the basis for numerous camp traditions and programs. In misguided attempts to foster appreciation for Nativ American cultures, "Indian lore" too often winds up caricaturing and misrepresenting the cultures it purports to ennoble.

Outdoor educators who parrot sacred Native American rituals and ceremonies, using them for their own purposes instead of as they were intended, do a disservice to both themselves and the cultures they so earnestly attempt to emulate. Any camp wanting to offer Native American programming should seek guidance from Native Americans.

Organized camping programs are uniquely suited to offer and benefit from multicultural education. By helping campers learn to appreciate diversity and t seek the common ground among different people, camps promote the development of a new world view. This new paradigm unites us all as sisters and brothers traveling similar paths on the same planet. It teaches us that learning from each other and working together is the only sane and sustainable course as the world moves toward becoming truly a global village.


Banks, J. (1992). It's up to us. Teaching Tolerance, 1 (2), 21-23.

Blahna, D.J.-(1992) Comparing the preferences of black, Asian, Hispanic and white fishermen at Moraine Hills State Park, Illinois. Proceedings of the Symposium on Social Aspects and Recreation Research (Gen. Tech. Report PSW-GTR-132). Albany, California: Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service.

Bullard, S. (1992). We can dance but we can't talk. Teaching Tolerance, 1 (2), 4.

Ditton, R.B. (1992). Your changing world. Presentation at the statewide management staff meeting, Division of Fish and Wildlife, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Dwyer, J.F. (1992). Outdoor recreation participation: blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians in Illinois. Proceedings of the Symposium on Social Aspects and Recreation Research (Gen. Tech. Report PSW-GTR-132). Albany, California: Pacifi Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service.

Jackson, J. (1991, winter). The environment: making lions lay down with lambs. Trilogy, 156-158.

Jordan, C. (1991). Toward environmental integration. Common Ground, 2 (2), 2.

Jordan, D.J. (1990). Celebrating the rainbow. Camping Magazine, 63 (2), 40-42.

Missouri Department of Conservation. (1990). Urban Missourians' interests in fish, forests and wildlife: Results of a 1989 citizen survey. Missouri Department of Conservation Public Profile (3-90).

Miranda, W. (1990). Organized camping's honorable tradition: Safeguarding diversity through community. Camping Magazine, 63 (2), 16-20.

Murdock, S.H., Backman, K., Ditton, R.B., Hoque, M.N. & Ellis, D. (1992). Demographic Change in the U.S. in the 1990s and the 21 st Century: Implications for Fisheries Management.

Punske, L. & Montoya, A. (1992). Anytown. Teaching Tolerance, 1 (2), 58.

Webber, M.S. & Walker-Thoth, D. (1990). Camp can make a world of difference. Camping Magazine, 63 (2), 36-38.

Bruce E. Matthews is director of the New York Sportfishing and Aquatic Resource Education Program, based at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
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Author:Matthews, Bruce E.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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