Feb 18, 2021

How I was Introduced to Social Justice Ideology at Summer Camp (Part 1)

During the summer before my sophomore year of high school (2004), I was invited to attend a summer camp. At the time, I remember it being advertised as a camp for aspiring young leaders. Though I was a shy and introverted student I was chosen to be one of the participants to represent my high school. There were at least 10+ high schools represented, with each high school having at least two students in attendance. I had never been to a summer camp before (not something Haitian parents would willingly allow their child to do), but I was somehow able to convince my parents to let me go. Honestly, the appeal of being called a "leader" convinced us all that it would be a great opportunity. 

Just a few days at this camp changed the way I viewed the world and those around me. In this post, I'll go over some of the activities we did which led to me adopting a social justice ideology. 

The first morning of camp was amazing! We learned new (and some familiar) songs and got to know who our group leader and group mates were. Each group was a mix of students from different high schools so it was nice to feel connected to teens all over NJ. Even though I was quite shy I always did well in smaller groups, and I enjoyed getting to know my groupmates. The counselors did a great job making us all feel like a family...on the very first day! Then we did our first activity.

The Privilege Line

We were told to line up in a straight line across the field and to move forward or backward according to the statements read aloud. We were to keep quiet for the entire activity. "Take a step forward if you can turn on the TV and know that you will see people who look like you." "Take a step forward if you can buy a bandaid in your skin tone." "Take two steps back if you can't openly show affection to your significant other." Statements continued in this fashion for a while with my campmates moving, or standing still, with each statement. The statements seemed to focus on race, sexuality, religion, and other aspects of life many of us didn't understand at the time. Toward the middle of the activity, as my campmates and I looked around, it became clear what was happening. The atmosphere started to shift. Things got tense. There was a clear divide that was starting to show--more white faces toward the front, and black faces toward the back. People were visibly angry. I was burning hot with anxiety and other feelings. 

At the end of the activity it was explained to us that this is what privilege looks like. Through no fault or attempt of our own those in the front had these privileges because they were white, male, heterosexual, and/or Christian--they were part of the dominant culture. And those of us who were toward the back were there because we weren't part of the dominant culture. While we all felt like family just moments before the activity, division was quickly sown. I remember boys and girls, both white and black, vehemently disagreeing with what they were being told and the counselors either offering an explanation against the disagreement or encouraging them to bring up their feelings in their small group.

In my small group, privilege was further explained and I felt like a veil was lifted from my eyes. I learned that because I'm black there are advantages that would not be afforded to me. And that being a black woman could be a disadvantage and would count against me. I learned that some of my white campmates were experiencing feelings of anger as a result of their privilege. While all along they thought that they (and their parents) worked hard for the advantages they had, what was really working for them was their privilege. They didn't do a thing to earn what they have and, if they were black, they wouldn't actually be where they were in life. 

While, at the time, I felt a veil was being lifted from my eyes, I was really having a veil pulled over them. This veil worked as a filter in which I viewed nearly everything. I adopted Social Justice as my ideology. My understanding and allegiance to this ideology grew throughout my time at camp and involvement with the organization.

Another activity (focused on Intersectionality--how our identities interact with each other and society) helped me see the world through my varying identities. I no longer saw the world as Joanne. I saw the world as a black, woman, who also happened to be a Christian. I don't remember how I prioritized these identities, but I remember feeling as if being black was the most salient one. And this, at its core, is the issue with adopting Social Justice as a Christian. One of these "identities," one of these worldviews, will have to bow to the other. 

Read Part 2 here.

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