Interview with Miles Rapoport EFC Alum 1966 KY

miles-rapoport-photoWhen you arrived, what was your first impression of the Encampment?

I had two impressions. First, how different an environment Barbourville, Kentucky, was from metropolitan New York. Second, how extraordinarily diverse and energetic this group of young leaders was that I was encountering. It was both exciting and challenging.

What topic did you spend the most time on at the Encampment and what did you learn?

1966 was a remarkable year in the Civil Rights Movement. Black Power and the Black Panthers were beginning to form and stake out positions that were different from the traditional integrationist Civil Rights Movement. SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which had been formed in 1960, was under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the term Black Power and advocated new tactics and goals, including self-reliance and the use of violence as a legitimate means of self-defense. Many of the African-American Encampers were attracted to it and involved. The issue of race and how young white liberals should relate to it, as people and as activists, became the major topic of conversation. There were deeply difficult and discomforting moments, but the amount that all of us learned from being in those discussions was remarkable, and permanently changed our lives. As a result, when my friends and I came back home, the Great Neck South Civil Rights Club, which we were heavily involved in, decided to invite Ivanhoe Donaldson—the national field secretary for SNCC—as a speaker for a major event, which caused tremendous controversy at the school.

What community service projects do you remember?

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty had just begun with the creation of the Community Action Program (CAP). The local CAP agency was trying to get people in rural Kentucky to come to the centers and participate, and they were having a hard time. Ed Peeples, our EFC director, conceived the idea that we would offer to help people by painting their mailboxes and other chores as a way of demonstrating that the CAP agency could offer concrete benefits. We Encampers went out into the hollers and offered to paint people’s mailboxes. About half of the people were appreciative and the other half wanted nothing to do with us. Either way, these were important formative experiences for us [as community organizers].

We went out in groups of two and knocked on people’s doors. They were not used to people from “the North.” We talked to them and learned from them about their lives, situations, opinions; occasionally getting into a political conversation. It was remarkable. In some ways, it’s what the EFC was designed for—to give young civil rights leaders experience in the community. It was important for us to think about what it meant for the people to have two young liberal teenagers from New York knock on their doors and offer to paint their mailboxes.

How did the Encampers get along? How did this change over the time you were together?

[I would say there were] three phases: Initially, everyone was on their best behavior, wanting to meet new people and make a good impression. Then there was a middle phase where tensions developed around the racial issues we were debating and some gender issues as well. Some of the African-Americans were disdainful of lily-white liberals wanting to come down from the North and help just as the sense of the Black Power movement was coming into being. The intensity led to hurt feelings and arguments.

By the end, there was a tremendous amount of mutual respect and community. A lot of real understanding on all sides. Smart young folks don’t look at the world in just one way—everybody learned that through the interactions and discussions that we had. It significantly changed the direction of my life. It was a big deal.

What did you learn at the Encampment?

The biggest thing that I learned was how deep and ingrained racism was and still is in our society. That was really the first time I encountered the life experiences of young African-American kids from different backgrounds. By the end, I had internalized it and it transformed me from a liberal to a radical.

How has the Encampment influenced your life?

It encouraged and cemented me into a lifetime of activism. When I went back to my senior year of high school and then to college, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to join organizations and become active in the anti-war movement in college. Then I became a community organizer after college. All of the career choices that I’ve made have involved the fundamental understanding that grassroots activism and citizens standing up for their rights themselves is a critical part of making change. All of the activities that followed—community organizing, serving in public office, being president of Demos and later Common Cause—have been tied together by a commitment to the citizen activism that I learned at the Encampment.

Why is the EFC important today?

To the degree that young people can have the kind of eye-opening and meaningful interaction that we had in 1966, they will be better activists and leaders as a result. It’s really exciting that the EFC is renewing itself. I hope it will be able to give the kind of experience to young people that it was able to give us 50 years ago.

(See other alum stories on our website EFC Alum Stories)

 

 

THE ENDURING POWER OF LIVING DEMOCRACY

naomi-feldman-2Naomi Brodkey Feldman participated in the 1950 Encampment at the Fieldston School, NY. We interviewed her about what she learned at the Encampment. (Soon to be available at encampmentforcitizenship.org under Alum Stories).

What did you learn at the Encampment?

The most lasting attitudes that I took home from the Encampment were of not sitting by when I had the chance of making a difference; of doing what I could to make happen the ideals of social justice I believed in; not tolerating indifference, injustice or apathy. I remember many conversations about freedom of speech and how dangerous setting limits on it can be. I remember Hank Herman reading Plato’s “Parable of the Cave” at a Sunday morning gathering. I had never heard anything that explained so much about how we know what we know. It was seared into my brain forever (and, in fact, I had my high school students read it every year I taught history).

I remember Al Black’s “fascist” speech, which made us realize how easy it could be for a fearmonger to take over under the guise of needing emergency powers (a useful reminder during this horrific presidential election year).

There was an enormous range of backgrounds in our group, but the friendships that developed crossed apparent differences. What we had in common was a desire to change what we saw as problems: political apathy, disparities of income, educational opportunities. We learned how to confront racism in social interactions, how to build programs for change.

I learned that I could make a difference, that I needed to act to be able to live with myself, that I had an obligation to speak out against injustice, that it was easier to do the above than I thought, that together we can do even more and that change is possible, eventually.

How has the Encampment influenced your life?

In the most obvious way, the EFC changed my life because I was married for 30 years to another Encamper: Hugh Brodkey. Two of our children are also EFC alums, Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman (‘70NY) and David Brodkey (‘77NY). However, there were also other ways that the EFC affected me. I became far more involved in the political life of my college community, held many positions there. I worked for a labor union during college breaks (the ILGWU). I worked hard as a young person living in Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s in areas involving segregation in housing and schools and later for many election campaigns in Chicago, and in Evanston when we moved there. Eventually, as a high school history teacher, I spent a lot of my energies talking to students about the need to create a caring society that believed in and supported the social contract.

Encamper’s resolve to support her fellow Dreamers ends in victory in her home community

efc70_073-2

In my sophomore year, I asked the principal for a space to host immigrant youth, but was refused. I knew it was critical to ensure that immigrant youth understand the issues that affect their lives. For months, I advertised the club and recruited more than 30 students to meet weekly and discuss laws in California that both benefit and limit their education.

In the summer of 2015, I participated in the Encampment for Citizenship, where I was challenged to think critically about society. Being in a place with youth who were equally as passionate as I am about achieving social justice allowed me to speak openly about issues in my home community that affected indigenous undocumented farmworker youth. Toward the end of the program, I dug deep inside myself and made some promises.

One promise was to help the Dreamers Club that I had co-founded thrive. Due to the lack of support from the administration, I contacted Congresswoman Julia Brownley. This created visibility within the school and district. Further efforts led to attending statewide events such as “California Dream Network,” “IDEAS” and other conferences geared toward the undocumented. The mission for this group was to be a reflection of the larger campaign of Safe Zones that would be implemented district-wide for undocumented students.

The hate comments made by the president-elect evoked fear from undocumented students across the nation. It was evident that students throughout my school district needed a space where they can be with others who also feared deportation. I presented a resolution to the school board that protected students from ICE, established a student “healing” space and provided a counselor designated to guide undocumented students. The resolution received unanimous support – and passed.

The club served to mobilize, create consciousness and empower youth regardless of citizenship status in the larger social movement for equal access to education, immigration reform, and economic and social justice.—Litzy (15MS and 16MA)