Encampment Alum Interview: Ed Peeples

We interviewed Ed Peeples, alum 1957 New York, and Encampment Program Director, 1966 Kentucky, just as his memoir is about to be appear in bookstores. Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism, tells the surprising story of a white working-class boy who became an unlikely civil rights activist. Born in 1935 in Richmond, where he was sent to segregated churches and schools, Ed Peeples was taught the ethos and lore of white supremacy by every adult in his young life. . . . Covering fifty years’ participation in the long civil rights movement, Peeples’s gripping story brings to life an unsung activist culture to which countless forgotten individuals contributed, over time expanding their commitment from civil rights to other causes. This engrossing, witty tale of escape from what once seemed certain fate invites readers to reflect on how moral courage can transform a life.” (University of Virginia Press)

A couple of chapters in the book are devoted to Ed’s Encampment for Citizenship (EFC) experiences and provide engrossing reading. In the meantime, Ed shared a sneak peek with us of some of his Encampment memories.

Ed, what was your first impression of the EFC? I loved it. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a bunch of liberals and I hadn’t seen any in their natural habitat. I had a lot of time to ponder—360 miles—as I drove up from Virginia in my ’48 Chevy. At that time, I was so isolated and alone, painfully alone. Family and friends had rejected and harassed me. I was longing for good company of the mind. I drove across the George Washington Bridge and into the Bronx where I first saw Fieldston School. I went to the dining hall where people were gathering. And they were all so erudite, informed, eloquent—White and Black youth. It was a powerful experience coming from my segregated South. My first thought was that, “I don’t measure up” and I felt inadequate, scared about getting the bum’s rush. But no one was unkind or unwelcoming.

At our first official meeting, I was so honored to meet Al Black (co-founder of the EFC) and Bill Shannon. Al gave an inspiring speech and I thought, “I’ve got to learn to speak extemporaneously like this man.”  We then introduced ourselves. There were great stories. And there were also people like me—who had been raised to be more passive, retiring, humble—Native Americans and Blacks and White Southerners—people just like me who didn’t express themselves much at first. There was a charge made to the group from Al Black that I thought is really what the EFC is about— an obligation to take it all in and take it home and do something with it.

Tell us about a memorable experience. There were so many. We went to the U.N. where we heard Ralph Bunche and many other distinguished speakers. But one memory that really stands out for me was the night of our banquet. Alice K. (Nanny) Pollitzer (co-founder of the EFC) was about to give a speech. The podium was near a large glass window behind us that faced the parking lot below. As she stepped up to the podium, we heard repeated shouting and racial epithets from outside. Then a stone crashed through the window and hit Nanny on the back of the head. Nanny, who was about 86 at the time, pitched forward. She righted herself, ignored what had happened, and went on to give an inspiring talk urging us “Go forth and right the world!” When she finished, we all stood up and screamed and clapped. It just turned on the buttons inside of everyone. We thought, “I will never retreat from this again.” We wanted our commitment measure up to her example!

What did you learn at the Encampment? I learned that I deserved to think more of myself—maybe I am somebody. That was the principal effect and lesson and that I was never alone again. I now had a reference group that I was a part of no matter where I was. I could refer to the Encampment experience, its attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Also, I learned a lot about different ethnic groups. Encampers came from all over the country and world and I came to feel the sense of justice resounding around our country. I saw that my views were not my sole property but part of a world communion. We were charged to “Go forth!” It doesn’t matter about lack of support. You are speaking up for the rights of people throughout the world. You are a local agent of a world community. Get on with it! And, I was never alone again.

How has the Encampment influenced your life?  Never being alone gave me a sense of self-certainly about the righteousness of standing up for justice. Even when I was in the Navy, I stood up for things—challenged racism, engaged in sit-ins and community organizing. I had become more forceful, less cowardly.  I wrote a LOOK magazine letter-to-the editor about the failings of the military. I was not a pacifist when I went in. I felt obliged to serve and protect our country but that’s not what they use the military for and I spoke up about it. Sometime after I left the military, I wrote my master’s thesis on the fight for desegregation of the schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Later, as a university professor, I agitated for good jobs, health care, and decent housing for all, pushed for the creation of African American studies courses at my university, and worked toward equal treatment for women, prison reform, and more.

The Encampment gave me the support and tools at exactly the right time to become the civil rights and human rights activist that I have been for 56 years. One reason why I was persuaded to write this book is that real change, the kind that occurs over time, like desegregation, is not solely dependent on iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Yes, they inspired us but the people who desegregated the South were ordinary, usually unnamed, people (often women) who stood up for what was right day after day, got beaten up and disparaged, for years until it was done. I’m talking about segregation here, not racism. Often a historical account of a social movement focuses on iconic figures but I am talking about a culture of activism that anyone can embrace and participate in right now in their home community. The EFC prepared us and charged us to “Go forth and right the world!”

Ed, in 1966 you were Program Director for the first Southern Encampment. I understand this was a harrowing experience. Can you tell us something about this?

It would be impossible to give you a quick answer to the events of that six weeks and I do cover it in the book at length. Very few in the county, including well-meaning local whites, suspected the virulent white supremacy that lay just below the surface of Barbourville life. I can say that the repeated verbal and even physical assaults made on the Encampers actually ended up validating several of the EFC main principles. First, the geographically, racially and socio-economically diverse group bonded into an integrated community breaking down psychological barriers and building trust between people who society would have assumed were fundamentally dissimilar. Second, these young people had witnessed a visionary prospect—they had “been to the mountaintop”—and knew they had become the special bearers of this message as they left for their hometowns. They had become part of a world communion of witnesses to what can be. Third, by their work in the community, Encampers were making lots of local friends. They did things that ranged from clearing creek beds to reading to young children to organizing a neighborhood newsletter and activities associated with promoting greater citizen activism.

Ed, you were instrumental in EFC’s re-launch in Richmond in 2013. I was delighted that the EFC Board chose to push the Encampment re-start button in Richmond. I was also grateful and proud how Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) stepped into a major supportive role.  We could not have pulled it off without John Ulmschneider and his remarkable staff at the VCU Libraries.  My great hope is that the Richmond rebirth demonstrates that the Encampment is back and can once again fill more generations of youth with the strengths and fire it left in us Encampers in its first fifty years. Go forth! To Chicago!

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Ed’s book is available from the University of Virginia Press. You can also find it on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble. Or order from your local bookstore. If it sells 1000 copies, it can made into paperback and used in classrooms to inspire a new generation of social justice activists.

Ed Peeples is Associate Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine & Community Health at Dept. of Preventive Medicine & Community Health, Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the recipient of the Riese-Melton Award for “Outstanding Contributions to Cross Cultural Relations”, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1983. He is the father of four daughters: Suzy, Katy, Cecily, and Camille. He lives in Richmond, VA with his beloved life partner of over 30 years, Karen Wawrzyn.

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Before and After the First Encampment of the 21st Century

July 1-15, 2013 marked the first Encampment of the 21st Century! The Encampment experience came about through the efforts of Encampment volunteers and staff, combined with the committed participation and adventurous spirits of our first group of 21st Century Encampers.

The goals for the summer pilot program were high:

  • Give a socio-economically, geographically, and ethnic/culturally diverse group of young people a brief experience of what the Encampment can be.
  • Solicit feedback from the Encampers about their vision for a “21st century Encampment program.”
  • Engage more alumni in Encampment-related work.
  • Make connections in several new communities for youth recruitment.

These goals were met and exceeded! Current and past alums emerged ready to move forward, with greater understanding and increased commitment.

2013 Encampers came with their own expectations:
“…to learn about leadership…practice self-government, and explore current issues with other young people.”
“…to meet new people and hear their stories.”
“…to get out of state and explore independence, to get ready for college.”

In follow-up conversations with the young people, these results shone through:

  • They met people that they never would have met in ordinary life and got to know them in a deeper way that made one person exclaim, “We are like family.”
  • They learned about leadership: “I learned that I’m stronger than I thought I was—how to adjust, cope, and be a leader.”
  • One Encamper remarked on the role of group process:
    “We started out kind of rough and we progressively got better until we got to the point we could have discussions without tripping each other. So in terms of being a facilitator, that’s very helpful for me. The connections that we’ve been able to form in just two weeks, it was just amazing.”

Plans are underway for the 2014 summer program, which will take place at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Contact efcyouthprogram@gmail.com for application materials.

2014 Summer Program News!

This summer, 30 teens from a wide variety of backgrounds will live for three weeks in a multicultural Encampment community where they will explore in-depth issues of concern to them and our society. They will participate in the life-changing experience that has created decades of social change activists—and make life-long friends.

The 2014 Encampment will take place at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The program will be housed in a beautiful, modern dormitory featuring spectacular views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.

Our summer recruitment drive begins now! Please contact efcyouthprogram@gmail.com for more information, and spread the word. Application materials are available on our website and also here:

Youth applications are due by March 3 for early acceptance; April 15 is the application deadline.

We are also seeking applications for the 2014 Program Director and for 2014 Summer Staff members. Information is available here:

Job applications are due by February 24. Questions? Contact efcyouthprogram@gmail.com.

“The Encampment program is based on the assumption that to learn to be a citizen the individual must have an actual experience in democratic living and citizenship in a democratic community…It is not enough to learn the principles and ideals of democracy. We learn democracy by living it.” —Al Black

The goal of the Encampment is to develop responsible, informed, effective, and courageous global citizens. At the Encampment, youth of different religious, racial, socio-economic, and national backgrounds learn the principles and practices of democracy by living it. The Encampment provides young people with an experience in addressing community problems and equips them for the responsibilities of community participation and democratic action. Our purpose is to help young people learn what it means to live in a true democracy and how that connects with issues of personal responsibility and responsibility to and for a group, community, nation, and world.

This summer’s Encampment will bring back the workshop format, which enables Encampers and staff to dig into a topic in-depth over the course of the 3-week program. This work will be supported through speakers and topic-related field trips. Encampers will grapple with the challenges of developing a community decision-making process (community government) that represents and takes into account the opinions and thoughts of all community members. Staff and Encampers will relate the issues that arise in the Encampment community to the larger societal issues they are investigating. The staff will use the time-honored Encampment process of questioning to help Encampers understand the relationship between what may seem like a personal issue to its larger societal context. This process challenges youth to think more deeply and completely. As social issues are discussed and examined at the Encampment, they take on personal meaning, because they are expressed through the lived experience of individual youth whose lives embody the issues in various ways.

These transformative experiences ripple through Encampers’ lives as a lifetime resource. Encampers’ ability to rigorously interrogate issues and situations prevents them from falling prey to dogmatism and unthinking action. Their experience of multicultural, democratic living equips them to live and work in a complex, diverse world. Encampment alums participate thoughtfully and responsibly in local, national, and global communities.

The 2014 Encampment is the next step in developing the 21st century Encampment programming and building a sustainable organization. Join us in this valuable work, and help build a new generation of leaders committed to justice and democratic action.

2013 Encampment

Encampment Inter-Generational Program

The Encampment is poised to become a force for change in a whole new way.  We learned in 2013 that there is a wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience in all the generations that have attended and supported the Encampment over the past 60-plus years. It was really amazing to watch how much knowledge there is—and how much fun the alums from different years had with one another! With the advantages of current technology and social media, communication is facilitated easily across different regions and nations. We have a wonderful opportunity to mobilize as an inter-generational national and international community of support, inspiration, and dialogue. –Margot Gibney, 71 MT

The Encampment is in the unique position of being a start-up with a 67-year history. Alums have attended Encampments from 1946 through 2013 and range in age from teens to 80+ years old. We have a unique opportunity to learn from each other and share our perspectives on social justice, democracy, and community action. The organizers of the 2013 Encampment decided to begin developing an inter-generational component to our program. The pilot for this effort was the 2013 Alumni Day program, which took place on July 13 at the Encampment.

Alumni Day drew 26 alums from the 1940-1990s to Richmond VA. Alums were invited to experience the 2013 Encampment, meet the Encampers, and help build for the future.

Lunchtime featured spirited cross-generational dialogues as 2013 Encampers and several decades’ worth of alums got to know each other and shared their interests and insights. At each table, Encampers and alums talked with each other, jotted down notes and doodles, and answered questions such as:

  • “Where are you from? What’s something you really like about where you’re from?”
  • “Tell us about a memorable or favorite Encampment speaker or field trip.”
  • “What’s some advice or a request you have for the older—or younger—generation?”
  • “What work do you do, or what work do you want to do? What do you find compelling about this work?”

Here’s a sampling of the notes that conversational groups left on their tables:

  • What would you recommend for Encampments in the 21st Century? 4-6 weeks, more people, more field trips.
  • What is respect? What is community?
  • Advice for younger generation: Keep a record of what you do. You don’t know ahead of time where it will lead or which part you might value later. REFLECT.
  • Advice for older generation: Need to open up your minds.

After lunch, alums gathered to learn more about the Encampment’s future plans and ways they can help move the organization forward. First, the group split up by “Encampment decade” and talked about what they remembered from their Encampment experiences. The goal was to see what themes emerged as important, looking back over the years. Some of the themes included:

  • Personal stories, so I know you better and you know me better
  • Citizenship = Participation; participate, fight for, make a better world
  • The Encampment = ½ talk, ½ work
  • The Encampment IS the experience; it’s not theoretical.
  • Intensive multicultural experience; bonds that were forged
  • Understanding of issues on a personal level
  • Dialogue necessary – too often neglected
  • Reach out and make a difference in our communities.

Next, alums regrouped based on where they currently live (East coast, West coast, South, Midwest). These groups took inspiration from their remembrances of the Encampment and brainstormed ways that they could volunteer to help grow a sustainable Encampment organization. Out of this gathering came the impetus for holding the 2014 Encampment in Chicago!

During the 2013 Encampment, the young people worked in groups to discuss and investigate issues of importance to them. They developed presentations to share with the alums and members of the local community. On Saturday night, the alums and community members assembled for this spectacular program. The 2013 Encampers gave their presentations, using creative arts—music, multimedia, dance, poetry, spoken word, etc.—to present the issues. Presentations included:

  • The Potawatomi & Lunaape Languages
  • The Woman Experience
  • Mental Illness in Adolescents
  • Spending and Funding in Education
  • Native American Teen Suicide
  • Looking: A group song composed and performed by Encampers with Jane Sapp (video)

The audience was wowed by the impact of these presentations. Everyone left with a feeling of renewed commitment and enthusiasm.

“I went to Richmond to help celebrate the revival of the EFC. Being at the alumni weekend was for me a confirmation of the value and importance of this program for young people learning to live ethical lives in today’s environment. It was gratifying to participate in the learning, dialogue and mutual support that occurred .  I was especially inspired by the talent and accomplishment of the encampers who performed and presented. I cherish the spirit of solidarity among the diverse, inter-generational community, EFC summer 2013.” –Jo Disparti, Alumni parent

The Inter-Generational Program will be part of the 2014 Encampment in Chicago, IL. Planning is underway for an event that will bring together alums from the 20th and 21st centuries, the 2014 Encampers, and staff. Please contact us at efcyouthprogram@gmail.com if you would like to be involved.