CRS Staff Training featured in Camping Magazine

Earlier this year, LAJF Director of Programs, Janessa Schilmoeller (‘05, ‘06, ‘10, ‘11, ‘16, ‘17) was published in the American Camping Association (ACA) publication Camping Magazine. Reflecting on her experiences as CRS 2016 and 2017 Camp Director, Janessa highlights efforts to prepare counselors to respond to microaggressions at Camp and provides resources for other camps to do the same.

The articleSocial Justice Series: Recognizing Microaggressions at Camp, is part of Camping Magazine’s social justice series. This series, according to ACA, aims to explore “social issues in the context of individual camps and the camp community as a whole as a way to spark further conversation and inspire positive change.”

Janessa writes about ongoing efforts to hire a diverse staff that is reflective of the cultural diversity of our camper body, and the importance of cultural sensitivity training for staff of all different backgrounds.  

It would be naive to assume that a diverse team alone is intrinsically capable of effectively mentoring youth from every cultural background. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender female, I am not going to be exclusively interacting with other white, heterosexual, gender-conforming female campers. Similarly, I cannot assume a black counselor from South Carolina will easily relate to a Muslim camper from Ghana based solely on race, any more than I can assume I will get along with a female camper from my own state simply because we are the same gender. Given the many intricate layers of our identities, it is important that even camps that are affiliated with a single religion, gender, or cultural group still provide multicultural training for their staff.

It would be impossible to train an entire staff team to be culturally competent in all the cultures represented in our program in just one week. In fact, it may be impossible to train anyone to be fully competent in another culture. However, I can train my counselors to be culturally responsive to the needs of campers, starting by identifying the subtle insults based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, gender, or other marginalized status that are most likely to occur during everyday camp life.

The article provides a step-by-step overview of the activities CRS staff used to explore the topic of microaggressions during staff training and reflects on what worked and did not work the first time around. It also addresses the complexities of intent versus impact and the challenges of creating a training that is impactful for a group of individuals who all come to Camp with different levels of exposure to the social justice terms and ideas presented.

At a camp that emphasizes cultural exchange, there may be a fine line between what one camper views as a genuine question about another culture and another camper experiences as an attack on their identity. When these microaggressions occur, counselors are put in the tough place of both validating and standing up for marginalized campers while simultaneously providing a learning opportunity for the “aggressor.” Rather than calling out campers in a shameful manner, we want to utilize safe space and call campers in to a discussion about the impact of their statements by asking for clarification of intent, posing questions to help the campers identify the problematic impact of the statement, and rephrasing the question in a more constructive way.

This is not an easy task, and responses to microaggressions or other forms of bias are highly situational; how staff choose to respond can vary greatly depending on the intent, impact, and unique factors involved in each case.  

Despite the challenges, the microaggressions training serves as a foundation for staff throughout the summer. After ten weeks at camp, many counselors still reference the training on microaggressions, among other multicultural-focused sessions, as one of the most useful parts of staff training.

Our staff training session on microaggressions is only the beginning of a series of both camper- and counselor-led activities that happen over the course of the summer around safe space, LGBT rights around the world, racial justice, human rights, privilege and allyship, intercultural communication, and other social justice topics. The microaggression training sets the stage for the level of cultural sensitivity brought to these activities throughout the season.

The article is based primarily on Janessa’s experience with this training in 2016, and since then she has continued to modify and improve the activities based on ongoing feedback and discussion with staff. She hopes to continue to learn and improve these diversity-centered trainings with the ongoing help of campers and staff in future seasons.

There is still much work to be done to build upon our foundation and discover new ways to reach staff who are unfamiliar with the impact of social justice issues on our campers, but as former program coordinator Yena Purmasir reiterated to me at the end of our trainings, the content at the core of these sessions is deeply important and should not be eschewed just because not everyone will ‘get it’ ... Once counselors can find an example of a microaggression that clicks with experiences in their personal lives, it is easier to make connections with examples that affect individuals of other identities.”