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Promoting diversity through leadership at camp.

Camp is a place where dreams come true, barriers are dropped, and children can be children. Within this setting a group of people come together from different backgrounds to form a camp family. Providing leadership for this diversity continues to be a challenge.

Statistics show that the United States' population is increasing in diversity.

In 1995 the population was:

* 73.6 percent white

* 12 percent black

* 10.2 percent Hispanic

* 3.5 percent Asian

* 0.7 percent American Indian

Predictions for the population in the year 2000:

* 71.6 percent white

* 12.2 percent black

* 11.3 percent Hispanic

* 4.1 percent Asian

* 0.7 percent American Indian

(Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1995).

Camp leaders should note these changes and work toward promoting the value of diversity within camp opportunities.

Challenges to camp directors

Providing leadership for a diverse population, as well as providing diverse leadership, can be difficult.

Diverse campers

One way to diversify a camp population is to create partnerships between camps and other youth-serving organizations.

Camp Graham, operated by the Pines of Carolina Girl Scout Council in Raleigh, N.C., has maintained a partnership with Duke University Hospital for the past 16 years. This partnership enables an ethnically diverse group of boys and girls, between ages 7 and 16 and under the care of Duke Hospital, to attend camp for one week during the summer. The time at camp provides a much needed break for parents and a change of pace in a fun setting for the youth. All expenses are paid through donations.

Another way to enroll children from diverse backgrounds is to hold informational meetings at a variety of churches with strong ethnic ties. At these meetings you can answer questions, show pictures, and explain the camp program. You can offer an opportunity to visit the camp so parents can get a firsthand view of the facility and accommodations. Visits often help parents feel more comfortable with the camp staff and the camp's living arrangements.

Diverse staff

Promoting diversity requires hiring staff from different backgrounds, which can be challenging. Often, children who spend several seasons as campers return as counselors when they are older. While this practice has value, directors also need to recruit staff outside of camp. Include a variety of educational institutions, ranging from community colleges to historically ethnic universities, on your next recruiting trip.

Hiring staff is only the first step, however. During orientation and throughout the camp season, help staff members learn to take advantage of the opportunities camp provides to develop a better understanding of diversity and an appreciation for others. Three primary avenues of encouraging greater diversity are socialization, education, and experience.


Break down barriers

When a camper enters the camp setting, the outside world fades away and camp becomes a new reality.

A change in living arrangements can encourage socialization and new ways of thinking. For instance, a few years ago at a Girl Scout camp I encountered a group of black children who had never been to camp. At camp they encountered a variety of people from different ethnic backgrounds and from various cities, states, and countries. The leaders of the camp encouraged exploration of different languages, cultures, and accents. As the week progressed, the girls' and the staff's attitudes changed from self-centeredness to open acceptance of differences. Instead of remaining a part of their own clique, the girls found friends from different ethnic backgrounds. Staff encouraged these changes through conversations that explored the ethnic and cultural differences within the group.

Promote understanding

Often young people enter camp with preconceived notions about others, which are influenced by deeply ingrained stereotypes. Camp leaders can help young people gain a greater appreciation and an understanding of each other's diversity (DeGraaf, 1992; Matthews, 1994). Counselors are adult role models throughout the camp season; campers depend on counselors for guidance and often listen to and respect their opinions. Counselors have an opportunity to eliminate stereotypes through positive social interaction. This interaction can take place during cabin clean up, campfires, or cabin devotions. Living with others teaches campers to share and care, regardless of differences.


Diversity is promoted through both organized (planned) and unorganized (spontaneous) activities.

Organized activities

A group initiative game can promote diversity. Create a large spider's web by stringing rope and elastic cord between two trees (Rohnke, 1989). Campers use teamwork to figure out how to get every group member to the other side of the web.

The leader creates a situation that promotes group interaction. For example, explain that the web represents life and that each hole in the web symbolizes the diversity of the group members as they move through life. Present questions about diversity to encourage discussion. As the group decides how to move each member from one side of the web to the other without touching the web, the leader facilitates a discussion on the importance of communication and barriers to the acceptance of diversity.

Unorganized activities

"Unorganized" refers to activities that can occur at any time. For example, campers often explore the environment and learn from what they notice. They smell a variety of flowers, touch leaves on trees, taste blackberries from the bush, and hear crickets chirp. Through the study of nature's diversity, children have a reference point that helps them understand their place in the natural world. If a leader observes an incident that can be related to diversity, then the opportunity for further learning exists.

While walking down a trail at camp, I observed two boys who found a snail. They carefully picked it up, looked it over, discussed its different features, and then set it back down. Seizing the moment, I talked with the boys about the things they had learned. I was able to bring diversity into the discussion by asking a few guiding questions: How does a snail differ from its environment? Are the snail's differences important? Are all snails alike? In what ways are you different from other people? How are your differences important?


Campers live, work, and play in an environment that fosters a family atmosphere. Camp leaders can help young people gain a better understanding of their own diversity through experiences that celebrate individuality within a group.

For example, one activity, called "The Chain of Diversity," is intended for use at the beginning of a camp session. Each camper and staff member in the group needs one of each: construction paper, ink pen, scissors, and glue. Each person cuts the construction paper into 1[inch] x 11[inches] strips. The leader takes a few minutes to explain the meaning of diversity to the group. After all questions have been answered, each person writes on each strip of paper one personal characteristic that makes him/her similar to and one that makes him/her different from others in the group. When this task is completed, group members discuss their similarities and differences and talk about how their diversity may affect interaction at camp. Establishing a common ground of similarities creates a comfort zone in which no one is alone or feels "too different."

Then, to illustrate the idea that each person's diversity is important to the group, ask everyone to link the strips into one long chain. Hang the chain as a reminder of the important attributes each person brings to the group.

The leader should provide several opportunities throughout the camp session for campers and staff to add links to the chain as they discover other personal characteristics.

Bringing home understanding

If your program is successful, campers will leave camp open-minded, accepting of others, and honest in their communication (DeGraaf, 1992). When they return home, campers' and staff's attitudes will reflect what they have learned about diversity, resulting in a greater desire to accept people based on individual worth instead of ethnic or racial background.

The camp experience can help all who are involved deal with diversity in a positive manner. It is important to train staff through group discussions, positive reinforcement, and role modeling so they can provide leadership and avoid racism at camp. Strong leadership is necessary for the acceptance of all people, regardless of their differences.


Camp Consumers in the 21st Century: topics and trends. (1994). Camping Magazine, 66(4), 23-25.

DeGraaf, K. (1992). Camping: Cross-cultural issues. Camping Magazine, 64(3), 36-41.

Matthews, B.E. (1994). Multicultural education: The role of organized camping. Camping Magazine, 67(1), 28-31.

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

Metts, T. (1994). Racial reconciliation roundtable; Overcoming overt and subtle racism at camp. Journal of Christian Camping, 26(5), 13-15.

Rohnke, K. (1989). Cowstails and cobras II: A guide to games, initiative, ropes courses, and adventure curriculum. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

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

RELATED ARTICLE: Defeating racism at camp

Even though camp is a wonderful opportunity to promote diversity, racism can occur. Leaders at Camp Oak Hill, N.C., suggest these ideas for overcoming racism in the camp setting.

* Provide a variety of role models for campers. Recruit qualified racially diverse counselors so campers from all backgrounds have someone with whom they can identify.

* Train staff to interact with children from a variety of diverse backgrounds. Explain differences in language interpretation. Some words have different meanings and may be easily misunderstood. This training will help staff feel more comfortable providing open lines of communication in group discussions.

* Give staff opportunities to discuss individual diversity. Campers are usually aware of differences that exist in the cabin or group; well-guided discussions help them sort through misunderstandings and come to appreciate differences.

* Ask staff to use positive reinforcement when a camper cooperates with others. Reinforcing good behavior with a pat on the back or a smile encourages the camper to repeat the behavior.

* Train camp staff to be allies to other staff or campers who may objects of racism.

Editor's note: Diversity is more than ethnic differences; e.g., physical differences: pimples, disabilities, clothes styles... differences in home life: inner-city vs farm life; two biological parents vs single parent, foster parents, step parents; number of siblings, etc. Young people also experience different levels of success, respect, and love. Their interpretations of events and actions at camp add to the diversity.

Celebrating what we have in common with others is as important as sharing an understanding of what makes us individuals.

Cheryl Gans is the former director of Camp Graham in Raleigh, N.C.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Camping Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Gans, Cheryl F.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Previous Article:Counselors-in-training: creating leadership opportunities.
Next Article:Camp leader: what does it take?

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