Interview with Aaron Richardson (2014 Encamper) & Beth Ward (Aaron’s mother)

What made you decide to come to the Encampment? My mom told me that it was a social justice program with a democratic aspect. When I read up on it I liked it that discussions would be specific as opposed to slight.

You wanted an intensive experience? Yes.

BW: I liked that too and I knew that Aaron was moving toward social justice.

So your mom told you about the Encampment and then you read about it but what was the strongest influence on your decision to go? I knew the basics but having my interview with Mike (staff member Michael Carter) really made a difference. He knew about the workshops and what the schedule would be and what the days would look like. I liked the one-on-one conversation.

It’s the end of November so you’ve had a long time to think about your Encampment experience.  What’s the first thing that comes to mind? The circle discussions, especially at night. And, specifically when Ms. Sapp was calling us out on interrupting during an event that day. She made it clear that we were all responsible for the whole group. A lot of groups miss that. For example, with my club, everyone is responsible; it’s not just ‘do your own thing’.

I remember the activist Barbara Ransby (Social Justice Initiative at University of Illinois at Chicago). She was interesting. She talked about capitalism being at the root of issues. And that different psychological issues cause disbelief in feminism.  Issues a lot of people wouldn’t want to touch on. I self-identified as a feminist before the Encampment but I came out really strong as a feminist in the group of males and as an ardent supporter of girls who identified as feminists.

For our workshop (Agents of Social Change), we had to choose five issues that were most important to us.  We chose music, education, violence in our communities, feminism and medical assistance. I chose feminism along with three girls (Alexis, Kaiyana and Rachel). We had to give reasons why we chose the issue, give solutions to specific problems, and present to the group for problem-solving. Mike asked me, How does it feel to be a male feminist in a group of females? I said, ‘Not only should men be feminists because it’s the right thing to do but if you have people in a social hierarchy then a lot of people have the privilege not to think about women’s rights. Men can leave it to the women and if men are always in power then it’s not going to change. Not being involved in struggle and not helping is remaining ignorant.’  I’m in a position of power as a male then if I talk about it, it brings a different audience to feminism.  I’m not just talking about Black issues. If I talk about it then it puts a light on what the women and girls are saying already. Maybe they will listen to them directly.

BW:  I figured EFC was right up his alley and that he would love it. We have been active in social protests since he was a baby in the stroller. I knew that the Encampment would mean the making of an activist. I like the fact that he made friends so quickly. Even though he didn’t talk about it. I think it was an overwhelming experience —  and that he had so much fun. I wish he could do again. I noticed that his connections with everyone have been outstanding. The kids seemed to have formed a really cool bond and I feel a little like an ‘outsider.’ Fine with me! I’m just appreciative that this was something that he was able to connect to, make friends, and LEARN from. When he told me he met Fr. Michael Pfleger, I knew things were going in a direction that he needed. The EFC is a part of how he is becoming who he is supposed to be.

What’s the strongest piece that stayed with you and stands out? What is something you would tell someone your age? There were a lot of opposing views and some of kids took it strongly. But the attitude of the staff kept the Encampment together. They helped make things happen and things were not random but connected for each day and week. There were specific events and activities based on the topics for that time.  We met Father Michael Pfleger of Santa Sabina Church and then we went to the Korean Cultural Center. It was great watching them dance, and do spoken work and other performing arts. They make spoken word videos on immigration issues and they send them to members of Congress asking them to do something. They really seemed like they were into it. That was an interesting mix of young people, not just Koreans but African-American kids too. I still think about that. There are many issues going on about immigration now I didn’t know anything about it before EFC

So it opened your eyes, exposed you to issues in a way you hadn’t been before?  It’s a big issue for some of the young people at the Encampment. One person in my music workshop is the son of farm workers who are un-documented. We got to talking and he told me he wished Congress would pass the Dreamers Act so he could try to be legal citizen and get to go to college. I talked with the other kids in this same position and it’s something that is always subconsciously bothering them even though they don’t talk about it. It’s big—like talking to someone after a death in their family. They don’t know how their life is going to go. So I’m wondering how the government is going to handle it.

It’s a living breathing human being. Yes, and some people don’t think immigrants have rights and they are against the Spanish language being used here.

What was difficult? Think broadly from beginning to end. The transition from at home to the start of the workshop. After that, I was engaged mentally and physically for three weeks. Proposing ideas to people and not being able to explain well why I believed what I did was hard. Choosing a type of government was hard. Some people didn’t know what I was talking about; some people knew exactly what I was talking about; and some people were against it. The first week we came up with a type of government to run the camp. Eventually we got down to idea of small committees to make rules for different things we do in the dorms and in sports. When we first started to talk, we were going off into different kinds of governments. I remember a girl saying communism sounds good because everybody shares. Then someone made some reference to history and someone else blasted them on that point. We passed around a feather to take turns talking. But we were all working together, educating each other. We made that connection.

Summed up, what did you walk away with? A sense of support –at the end it wasn’t “take your stuff and go.” More like: “Take everything you did and go home and do something with it. Have a meeting about what you do when you get home. We’re going to follow you and help you. Staff really cared about us and our issues.”

Do you feel like you changed?  I found out that anything in the realm of social justice is possible if you have connections. Social justice is community. It’s not a game where you see who can do this or that. It’s getting people together.

Beth: I know something is happening although he doesn’t tell me a lot (laughing). He joined a couple of organizations and started a club at school.

How have you put your experience to work? My friend Jake and I started a social justice club at school. We wanted it to be an activist club – world awareness and activism. We take different articles, look at the biases, look at extremes on both sides. We talk about it and then make a group decision about where to stand on the topic. It’s not a leader-based thing; we want everyone to get involved. We facilitate but anyone who wants to can talk. We have open discussions, not a school class.

‘There are more girls than boys and when we came up with the first topic—feminism— it was proposed by a girl, Margaret. We plan to do activities and have an event at the end of each topic. For feminism, we had a bake sale and gave the proceeds to the Springfield YWCA. Everyone baked something. We made over $100. We may go on to the next topic or go back with feminism. We could go back to that.  I’d like to discuss males’ roles in feminism and females’ roles and get to a deeper level of what boys and girls think about feminism. Guys say “Oh, I agree with it” and girls know what it really is. It will be hard and difficult but if we are going to have a tight group then we have to get into that. “

What support do you need from EFC? I have thought many times to ask for help with my ideas but I don’t tend to reach out. I’m independent and make too many mistakes. My friends check me all the time. It means a lot to know the EFC people support you very specifically. They know what we are doing. They know what it is and what it stands for and how we’re doing it.”

Are you interested in returning? Yes.

What would you tell a peer? How would they benefit from participating in the Encampment? I’d look for someone who doesn’t have a voice but you can tell they want to do something. They are interested in some way in doing some sort of social justice work and not sure how to go about it, what direction to take. I didn’t know how to go about the club before the Encampment.

BW:  Yes, someone interested social justice. These issues are so important. We need to develop more young leaders. In politics not enough of us are being represented in the decision-making process in communities or nationally. There’s a tendency to take what comes versus running the machine. If we let the kids learn how things work from the ground level and they build way up it will be different.  Parents don’t want to send kids away. It’s taking a risk but someone who believes in social justice has to have no fear. You have to believe in what you’re saying and you stand by it if you want to make change. Don’t wait for someone to hand it to you. Send your kids and let them find out how it works and go from there.

AN: Yes, do it despite the fear but do it because something else matters more.

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