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Open Letters on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Camp

The Camp Dudley Board of Trustees is committed to confront racism and injustice where we find it, including in ourselves. In support of those goals, we are publishing two open letters — one from Board Chair Whitney Phelps and one from former Dudley Leader Chris Inniss — to our community concerning diversity, equity and inclusion at Camp. The Board has also created a process for others in the community to share their experiences and traumas by emailing us at DEI@campdudley.org.  We invite these stories, both hard and hopeful, with one goal: to make Camp Dudley and Camp Kiniya a more inclusive place for every current and future member of our community.

Dear Chris and Our Entire Camp Dudley and Camp Kiniya Family:

2020 has been a year of reflection and reckoning at Camp Dudley and Camp Kiniya, as it has been in many places throughout our country and beyond.  With Camp unable to offer our summer programs this year, the Board of Trustees has had more time to discuss what Camp should be and to plan for how it will look in the future.  During that time, in addition to our focus on reopening Camp safely, our discussions and planning have focused on one issue more than any other – diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”).

The Board embraces our Directors’ commitment that Black lives matter at Dudley and Kiniya always, as well as their acknowledgment that we can and must do better to assure that our camps are truly diverse and inclusive.  Diversity and inclusion are not new issues for the Board.  Camp has made significant progress over the past five decades in increasing our non-white population and has been an important influence in the lives of many Black campers, cabin leadership, staff, and Board members, and others from marginalized communities.  

That said, we also know our Camp community is not immune from racism and intolerance, both overt and subtle, and that we have work to do in order to wholly practice what we preach in our motto.  Part of the work involves listening to the stories of those who have experienced or witnessed racism and injustice at Camp.  These are painful stories.  We are sorry that these events ever occurred and aim to confront racism where we find it, including in ourselves.  To do that, we must accept and reckon with the unvarnished truth.  

Toward that end, we are sharing a letter from former Leader #17309 Chris Inniss, entitled “My Dudley Trauma,” in order to foster open communication and shared reflection about race, equity, and inclusion at Dudley and Kiniya.  We have also created the email address DEI@campdudley.org, where we invite all members of the Dudley and Kiniya Family to share your own stories with the Board’s DEI working group.  We hope you will tell us what you think we need to hear so that we can learn from your experiences and take deliberate steps to make meaningful change in our Camp community and beyond.

Chris, we thank you for sharing your deeply personal and hard experiences as a Black Leader, who also identifies as LGBTQ+.  The use of racial and homophobic slurs runs counter to Camp’s motto and core values, and is unacceptable to us.  We hope your leadership in telling these stories publicly brings awareness to our community and courage to others to speak up.    

The Board is committed to taking concrete action toward achieving Camp’s DEI goals.  As an initial matter, we share the view that Camp must explore its Black history.  Telling that story will allow us to promote greater understanding, to celebrate our Black heroes, and to identify practices that have been more and less inclusive over time.  As Professor Ibram Kendi reminds us, “persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination” are essential to combating racial inequity.  Let there be no doubt: Black people and others from marginalized communities are cherished members of the Dudley and Kiniya Family.  Camp’s Black history will be studied and told.  

The Board also concurs in the need for substantive action beyond the study of Camp’s racial history.  We have formed a DEI working group, consisting of Board Chair Whitney Phelps and trustees Bob Craft, Caroline Deans, Erinn Harley-Lewis, Ted Smith and John Ulin.  That group is working on an exacting DEI strategic plan that we will publish by the end of the 2021 Camp season.  The plan will include concrete goals for diversity and inclusion in our: (i) operations and culture, (ii) camper, staff and leadership recruitment and retention, and (iii) alumni engagement.  

In addition, even as we plan for the future, we want to share some of our current initiatives to promote equity and inclusion at Camp:

  • Starting this summer, we will have DEI directors at both camps;
  • 20% of campers who were set to attend Dudley and Kiniya in 2020 identify as non-white, and we are working hard to retain them; and 
  • We have created a database of alumni of color that enables Camp to communicate directly with this core constituency.

Two summers ago, former Board member Sean McCalla spoke at the Dudley Chapel.  His theme was the question posed by Cain in the Old Testament, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  At Camp, Sean confirmed, we are called upon to look after one another as brothers and sisters. He concluded with a challenge to the audience, “Keep me honest and be my brother’s keeper.  And together we will change the world.”   Ultimately, that is what we ask of the Dudley and Kiniya Family.  Get engaged and stay engaged.  Share your stories with our DEI working group at DEI@campdudley.org.  Ask hard questions and pursue the answers.  Keep us honest.  Be our brother’s and our sister’s keepers.  And together we will change the world.

Sincerely,

Whitney M. Phelps
#22898
Chair, Board of Trustees
chair@campdudley.org

“My Dudley Trauma”
By #17309 Chris Inniss

In the late spring of this year, in the midst of global pandemic, an ongoing national epidemic came to the fore: the unjust killing of innocent Black people by the police. 

Dudley, like a lot of organizations, put out its own Black Lives Matter statement that denounced racial oppression. The statement set off a flurry on social media, where I joined the fray. Like a lot of folks, I rejoiced in the fact that Camp had taken a stand (Camp is notoriously apolitical after all), and I cautioned that Dudley still had much work to do. Implied in my comments was a tension around the fact that Dudley was speaking out on racial oppression without fully realizing its own sins on this very score. It was an anxiety informed by work I’d previously done at Camp. 

From 2016 through much of 2017, and then intermittently until 2019, I collaborated with fellow former Leader JD Leonard (#17349) to investigate just how inclusive the Dudley community is when it comes to race, class, and sexuality, among other things. We were motivated at that time by the desire to combat the divisive rhetoric around gender and race that the 2016 presidential election had elicited. We were further prompted by some of the more troubling episodes we ourselves had experienced and witnessed in our time at Camp, nearly a decade before. 

In 2017, we were invited by Dudley and Kinya to visit during the season so as to observe how things had changed since we had been Leaders. While we did have encouraging and important conversations with Camp’s Directors, staff, Leaders, and Board members, we were never called upon to discuss our findings in the report we authored thereafter. Our efforts to subsequently connect with the Board on these issues were met with polite but distant assurances that “things were in motion.” We were disappointed to be stymied, but we took the hint: we stepped back. That is, until this summer. Joined by a dynamic group of concerned alumni, JD and I reignited our discourse with Camp. This time, our focus was on Camp’s relationship with the Black members of its community, past and present. 

One of the most important conversations I had on social media following Camp’s BLM statement was with a fellow Black Dudleyite who took umbrage with what he felt were the unsubstantiated criticisms of Dudley that I’d posted. Rather pointedly, he asked me questions that I think a lot of White Dudleyites were thinking but were perhaps too timid to actually ask. He wanted to know what I meant when I indicated that, like me, some Black Dudleyites had likely experienced “trauma” during their time at Camp as a consequence of their “otherness”. He questioned my argument that Camp had historically erased and ignored much of its Black history. He wondered why, if I had had such a “bad time” at Camp, I’d bothered to stick around at all. 

In 2008, when I was in my fourth summer as a Leader, a Black camper in my division, the Plebes, was brought before me by his Leader. It was the last night of Camp and, just before evening activities had wrapped up, the boy had been drawn into a violent confrontation with a White camper in another cabin. He’d punched the White camper in the face. 

“He called me n***er” the boy said. He stood with a straight back and spoke in a steel monotone, but there were tears in his eyes as he explained how he’d dutifully avoided fighting in spite of the racial epithets he’d taken from this White camper. After three and a half weeks of abuse, he’d finally reached his limit.

That same summer, while off campus with other Dudley Leaders in a neighboring town, I myself was called a racial slur by a local, while enjoying a night out. It was something that happened twice before at various places that Dudley Leaders frequented near Camp. Years after these incidents, I’m told Dudley Leaders and staff still frequented at least one of these establishments.

In my last year at Camp, a fellow Leader pointedly used the word “f****t” in my presence to describe an unathletic camper. Unfortunately, the “f” word was used fairly commonly when I look back, but this was particularly painful because earlier that day, I’d publicly (and rather boldly) come out to Camp as queer in a chapel talk I’d delivered.

These experiences scratch the surface of some of the pain I personally experienced while at Dudley. They are on-the-nose anecdotes that reveal hardships that do not speak to the more nuanced (but more insidious) forms of oppression that abounded (and likely continue to abound in some form) in the Dudley community. I am under no obligation to share my deeply personal hard experiences, but I’m hoping that in doing so, albeit briefly, I may illustrate in broad stokes the monster that many Dudley boys who do not fit the White heteronormative model have battled over Camp’s 130+ year history.

To be fair, it was Dudley’s history that really cemented my love for Camp, back in my first summer on Lake Champlain as a Plebe in 1998. That summer, near the end of the first half, I read the history book Dudley had printed about itself, eponymously named “Camp Dudley: the first 100 years on Lake Champlain.” I was enthralled by its fearless founder, Sumner F. Dudley, and by its New Jersey beginnings. I was fascinated by the Camp number system, and committed camper number 1, George Peck, to memory. By the time I was reading Dudley’s history book, it was already 14 years old, but it didn’t matter. It still felt like it was talking about my Dudley.

Still though, as an almost 12 year old, I wondered at the images of White people wearing Blackface with enlarged painted lips. My mom is a legal scholar and historian, so I knew even then that what I was seeing was deeply problematic. Curiously though, the book does not go into the minstrel show portrayed. It does not explain that Camp, like the rest of (White) America, had quite the tradition of painting White people in Black makeup, mocking Black songs, Black culture, Black dialect, and Black traditions. There’s no mention of Camp’s history with Black people, the first Camp numbers it issued to Black staff members and Leaders, or the first Black campers. Amazingly, these questions are only just now, in 2020, being investigated.

If you ask Dudley’s chief stewards, its Board of Directors, “What was the impetus of Black campers being allowed to attend Camp after 75+ years as an all-White institution,” they’ll tell you “We’re not sure.”

If you ask the Board if Camp has ever formally asked after the experiences of those trailblazing brave Black children who came to Camp by themselves for 8 weeks back in the early 1960s (many of whom are now in their late 60s/early 70s and very much alive), the Board will tell you “I don’t know! We should look into that!”

Before this summer, Dudley could not have even told you what the lowest Black Camp number is (#9111) and who it belongs to (Buddy Howard, who is unfortunately deceased). They have no answer for just how Mr. Howard, who worked on staff teaching music at Witherbee from 1956-1959, came to Camp. They cannot explain why Dudley decided to give him a Camp number after not bestowing that honor on Black Dudley staff who’d worked there in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So, when I say Black history has been “erased” and “ignored,” you can see I’ve perhaps misspoken. “Utterly neglected” more clearly states the case.

Despite my difficult experiences and the egregiousness of Dudley’s omission of Black folks’ from its history, I have never considered abandoning Dudley. It is the site from which many Black lives, mine included, have been transformed for the better. It is a sacred space of physical and spiritual nourishment. It is the place where the importance of leadership was most strongly imprinted on my heart.

Recently, I finished compiling the first draft of a database chronicling every Black person who was ever awarded a Camp number. This was a personal project born out of my desire to better contextualize my own experience at Camp. In my study, which demanded that I meticulously review old Last Whistle yearbooks printed online, I’ve encountered one of the saddest and most telling signs that Dudley has work to do on the score of racial inclusivity. In 65 years of awarding Camp numbers to Black people at Dudley, I’ve found only one instance in which a Black person sent his SON to Camp. I acknowledge that in completing subsequent drafts of my database, I will likely discover more Black legacies, but it is fair to say that on the whole, Black men do not send their sons to Camp. The question is: Why?

I think it’s fantastic that Camp is finally making a Diversity and Equity push, and I think many will wonder why I am not satisfied by Camp’s most full throated commitment to these issues to date. To be sure, I applaud Camp’s acknowledgment of many “challenging conversations” ahead on these issues. Still, I remain skeptical of Dudley’s efforts here. As a Black man of the community, I’m looking for action, not just conversation. Dudley’s posted commitment to DEI indicates that the work ahead needs to avoid “shame” and “blame,” but of course so much of our past is indeed shameful! There are individuals and whole cohorts of Camp leadership in our past who are indeed to blame. And, if the work is not done correctly now, we too will be accountable.

To be frank, studying Dudley’s racial past is not something that can be handled by “micro-internships” executed by twenty-somethings, managed by full time staff committed to this only as one of “many issues” of a Board mandated “Strategic Plan.” Doing this work cannot be wholly spearheaded by altruistic alumni like those whom I worked with this summer. For once in its history, Black lives must be centered AT Camp, BY Camp, in deed, not just words. As a start, Dudley should look to the example of colleges and universities that have dealt with these issues, and secure the services of a bonafide archivist to do this work. It should enlist the absolute best talent in order to make meaning of the data that will undoubtedly come out of such a project. In other words, Camp must do more.

The Board will say that devoting such resources at a time when Camp took in no tuition because of COVID is unrealistic. “Wait,” they’ll say, “we’ll eventually get to this.” To that I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s words at the March on Washington, in which he rallied the nation to the hue and cry of fighting racial oppression. Standing before throngs of people desperate for change, he declared that the moral stakes of the moment meant that there was a “fierce urgency of now” that demanded substantive action in the present, not tentative attention at some indeterminate future.

Even as the din of protests eventually dim, Camp must continue to seek radical truth and not hide behind ingenuine banalities of “unity” and obfuscation around Camp’s resources. Indeed, attending to issues of racial inclusion in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner is more a matter of will and priority than anything else. Camp must formally acknowledge its deeply flawed practices and actions of the past, and it should apologize. It must also commit itself to truly doing the work required in the present. Until then, on the issue of racial inclusion, Dudley will continue to fall short of its glorious mantra, “The Other Fellow First.”