Nine 2015 Encampers from six different states (SD, MA,TX, CA, FL, NY) came to Albany, New York, by train, plane and bus to the Blue Mountain Center in Blue Mountain Lake for the 2015 Fall Encampment Institute. They arrived at this idyllic setting in the Adirondack Mountains eager to move forward on the projects they created at the summer Encampment program. The Blue Mountain Center is a wonderful incubator for artists and social justice activists from across the country and is a catalyst for community building and creativity. “What touched my heart the most was how friendly and supportive the Blue Mountain staff were.”—Kendra, CA
The Encampment youth worked hard to be able to attend the Institute, raising funds for their transportation and bringing extra assignments to make up work for missing school days. There was much joy at being reunited again after the summer and conversations immediately delved into the activities and challenges of the fall. The Encampers were prepared to talk about how their projects were going and had an opportunity to present to the group to outline their challenges and successes and get support and ideas.
They also spent time on looking at how each project related to a larger social issue and at strategies for engaging and motivating people. We employed some of these strategies (including music and theater) during the weekend so they had an opportunity to practice.
As we know, it’s difficult to take an idea and put it into practice, particularly as a teenager. Some of the challenges the youth face are apathy amongst their peers and juggling all the demands on their time. “The most useful thing for me was when we were given tools on how to get a group excited for a presentation. We learned different activities and games we could use to engage people in what we planned to present.”—Deanna, SD
There is an overwhelming consensus that the institute was an important and valuable experience, especially in terms of youth re-connecting and feeling the power of community. The young people shared deep, vulnerable feelings about the challenges they have faced on returning from the Encampment where they had changed, when their family and friends were unchanged. They faced the isolation of thinking differently and having a different set of priorities from many of their peers. It is clear that these Encampers have deep bonds of friendship and trust. For some of them, the EFC community is a beacon of hope in an otherwise discouraging world. For all of them, it is a source of support and encouragement for their projects and lives as social justice activists.
The group continued using music as an inspiration and often found themselves gathered around the piano, singing the songs of their Encampment and more. The Encampers’ singing brought other people staying at Blue Mountain Center into the room to share in their musical exuberance. An unexpected addition to the weekend was how the Encampers helped each other with their homework, especially the essays they were writing related to social justice issues.
The institute concluded with a moving ritual where each person gave a gift of something to everyone: “I give you the gift of _____” (perseverance, community, balance, etc.). “What touched my heart the most was the end circles where we all went around and said something loving to everyone in the circle, it was so uplifting and beautiful!”—Sejeia, TX
- re-engaged and participated in a reunion with some of their fellow Encampers
- presented and discussed the status, challenges and successes of their projects
- expressed their concerns, growth and needs for both their projects and the greater Encampment community
- felt a genuine connection to and role in the development of the Encampment
- gained skills in ways to do outreach and engage their peers and others in their projects through a series of simulations that modeled such activities
- investigated the process of teasing out the macro issue from the micro focus
- received individualized attention from staff on their specific needs related to their projects and other life challenges
“The most important activity to me at the Fall Leadership Institute was analyzing our community projects on the big paper in the sitting area. It was nice to introduce our ideas to our fellow Encampers and get feedback. I was able to get ideas from everyone and further my project. It was also nice to sit down, reconnect and feel like we came back to the Encampment all over again with the morning singing and enjoying the meals all together at the big dinner table.”—Marquise, NY
Suggestions for improving future institutes:
- More time. It was too short.
- More discussion of building community in home communities/asking allies for help with projects.
- Work at the summer program giving some core templates and having some workshops and discussions about how to identify a project; be clear what need that project is addressing; what larger issue it is addressing; and a strategy and resources for implementation.
- More systems for follow-up and support after the summer program for youth to support one another as they confront the difficulties of re-entry and isolation.
- More systems to provide additional adult support for youth when they leave the summer program. Some of this did happen on its own, but we want to increase their access to adult resources for expertise and other kinds of support.
- Some of our youth are very isolated, especially the rural youth, and we need to find additional ways to support them. We need to engage some of the organizations more and have an “organizing “ or project development toolkit for them to pull from. We have already begun working on this plan.
- We cannot underestimate the power of their connections to one another and the staff. The question is how to expand upon that and keep those connections alive and growing in the larger context of social justice work. The Encampment becomes a kind of family that is very important in the lives of most of these young people, but especially those who are facing huge obstacles on a daily basis.