AN INTERVIEW WITH HERB RAFFAELE, EFC ALUM 1963 PUERTO RICO AND STAFF 1969 & 1970 MONTANA

Photo Herb Raffaele on bridge

Herb Raffaele shares insights and stories from his Encampment experiences and how they completely changed his life.

What did you learn at the Encampment?

I learned many things, the most important being about governance – what it should be and what it should not. Also, how poorly governance is understood. Before the Encampment for Citizenship, I had no idea how important power and control were to some people and how far they would go to exert control.

I learned some of the wonders of diversity – new music, new foods, different perspectives, other life-styles. Despite my being from one of the most diverse cities in the world, the EFC represented diversity to me.

I learned that college (nor other formal education) does not prepare us for life. Without something like the Encampment, we live sheltered, shallow lives gravitating toward people as much like ourselves as possible. That is no way to grow or to live.

How has the Encampment influenced your life?

The Encampment completely changed my life. For one thing, I married a young Puerto Rican woman from my Encampment and had my children with her, so that accounts for a lot, but there was much more. I fell in love with the tropics, Latin American culture, its people and international issues. It led me to go to Puerto Rico on vacation and, by good fortune, get a job there for seven years doing exactly what I had been doing on my vacation.

During that period, I became the head of wildlife conservation for the Puerto Rican government – an unimaginable experience. Subsequently, I was given a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), managing all of that agency’s programs in Latin America and the Caribbean – another dream job. Later, I became responsible for the USFWS’s entire global program, managing $24 million a year in conservation programs in all corners of the world. These programs helped conserve elephants, tigers, rhinos, gorillas – the most-impressive living creatures on the entire planet.

Why is the EFC important now?

The EFC will always be important because there is no such thing as too much tolerance in the world, too much respect for others different than ourselves or too profound an understanding of what makes democracy work.

What is your favorite memory or story from the Encampment?

 I recall a number of powerful learning experiences at my Encampment. The most memorable occurred when we sought to put a new system of governance in place. A law student from South America prepared a draft constitution for us to consider. Overall, it looked very good. However, when one of the Encampers raised a concern about one of the articles, the drafter’s response was, “You don’t understand. Either you accept this proposed constitution exactly as written, or you get none of it. And besides, if you do not accept it, I am leaving.”

It was hard to believe what we were hearing. Needless to say, the fellow was nearly booed out of the place and we never saw him again for the rest of the summer! You would think such a thing is unimaginable, but at the EFC, it happened in real life.

The Encampment is all about experiences, so I have to tell two other very powerful ones.

Our Encampment was initially governed by three or four committees. Each Encamper could join as many or as few as s/he chose. This seemed incredibly democratic to me. However, this system was deemed inadequate as a means of governance by the participants, after which an Encamper got up and exhorted the group, saying that until we had elected a president and representatives, our experiment in governance was a failure. Really? This person thought that giving up self-representation in favor of being represented by someone else was “true democracy”? What a total misunderstanding of the essence of what democracy is all about.

The Encampers were given a riddle. It had four “logical” answers. However, the riddle was mathematical, so there was only one truly “correct” answer. Shockingly to me, the Encampers divided into four groups, each determined that its answer was the correct one. Then, each group selected a spokesperson to convince the others to come over to their side. NO ONE BUDGED!

Despite there being only one legitimate correct answer, once people had made up their minds, they simply did not listen. Reasoning meant nothing. If a bunch of college students could not be persuaded to agree to a single correct answer, no wonder so little progress is made on much-more-complicated issues in the everyday world and that many people make decisions that are in their own worst interest.

What motivated you to go to the Encampment?

My older brother, Thomas, participated in the 1962 Encampment in Puerto Rico and loved it, so I applied the following year. As members of the Society for Ethical Culture, a founding institution of the EFC and the site of its offices, my family became familiar with the program.

At the time I applied for the EFC, I had never been far from New York City, so the idea of going to a place as exotic as Puerto Rico was mind-boggling. At the same time, I had a general interest in governance and human rights that the EFC nurtured tremendously.

I received a scholarship so we only had to pay for my plane flight. Back in 1963, the scholarship covered something like $300, but things were less-expensive back then.

When you arrived, what was your first impression of the Encampment?

I do not recall my expectations, but I do recall my first impressions. As my plane landed in San Juan, I was awed by my first sight of palm trees. How different! Then, a bus drove us on what seemed like an endless trek slowly up a mountain, not arriving to our venue until after dark. The biggest shock of all came upon leaving the bus. We were greeted by a cacophony of jungle sounds that seemed to come straight out of a Tarzan movie. It was only later that I learned that this immense noise was the product of a myriad of diminutive tree frogs called coquis.

As to the Encampers themselves, the bus from the airport was full of “Americans” – U.S. participants. However, when we entered the main room of the building, a large group of Hispanic participants had gathered together, chatting vigorously in a language I had studied in school but could hardly understand when used in conversation. One particularly animated Encamper stood out and I thought, “Wow, getting along with people of such different background is going to be awfully challenging.” It was that young woman whom I later married.

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

Undoubtedly I spent the most time on governance – how can we get democracy to function in our own little Encampment community? I also participated in an economics workshop (the closest thing I could find to my real interest, which was the natural world). However, because the EFC was up in a rainforest, far removed from practically everything, our workshop could not pursue much in the way of study projects.

When I had the chance, I observed the birds around the Encampment – a passion of mine. The bird book I used for that purpose was written by none other than James Bond, an ornithologist whose name was chosen by Ian Fleming as the hero in his renowned novels. Many years later, I wrote Puerto Rico’s first illustrated field guide to the birds of the island. And many years after that, I wrote a new guide to the birds of the West Indies that replaced the book of none other than James Bond.

How did camper self-government work for your Encampment?

Our Encampment’s experiment in self-governance was a total debacle. That is, as far as organizing effective governance is concerned. Our ability to self-govern only got worse throughout the course of the summer, due to increasing distrust among Encampers. However, this was far from all bad.

Our failure to develop effective governance was an incredibly powerful learning experience. It taught me that the concept of democracy is much less understood than I had thought and, more importantly, that it can be easily thwarted and abused by those seeking power. Basically, as a concept, democracy is simple enough; putting it into practice, however, is incredibly challenging due to human frailties.

My Encampment was not unique. Governance in the 1969 and 1970 Encampments on which I served as staff also failed for similar reasons.

What field trips do you remember?

I remember going to San Juan for a July 4th celebration and while there, picking up a flyer that said, “Yankees Go Home!” The concept of the ugly American was alive and well.

What community service projects do you remember?

We could not do community service due to being in a rainforest, far from any towns and with poor transportation.

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

There is too much to talk about under this topic! One of my favorite recollections is of a very handsome fellow from Venezuela and attractive girl from New York who hit it off immediately and were always seen together, like two love-birds. The only problem was the he did not know a word of English nor she a word of Spanish. They had to call in an interpreter when they argued!

Relationships are about trust. The more different people are, the more difficult it can be to build trust, especially if there are language barriers, as there were at my Encampment. But, with the right attitude, it is very doable. Of course, not everyone had the right attitude, so how everyone got along ebbed and flowed.

Related to this question, I will tell one story from one of the Montana Encampments when I was on staff. Some of the Encampers were being robbed, apparently by one of their own. Community meetings were held and passionate appeals were made about the Encampment being a family, stealing was like taking something from your brother or sister; very heart-rending. Nevertheless, a few days later, something else would be stolen. A true community needs buy-in by all. The will of some and passionate speeches by others could not create it.

 What were some of your favorite leisure time activities?

Besides bird watching, I fell in love with Latin music. Because we were isolated in a rainforest, the Latin Americans would play music every night and dance, dance, dance. I sat there for two weeks watching until I got up the nerve to ask one of the girls to teach me the steps. After that, I danced every single dance for the rest of the Encampment!

Culture Shock

A truly fascinating experience for me at the Encampment was purely coincidental. One night, the boys decided to serenade the girls at their dorm. On the way down, I kept asking the boys from the U.S., “What will we sing?” but they put me off. Once we were there, the Latin boys broke into a beautiful love song. The girls were in awe. Then it was the U.S. boys’ turn … We didn’t know any love songs! We ended up singing some nonsense. Then the Latin boys sang another rapturous love song. The girls swooned. Again, the U.S. boys sang a clinker. And so it went. The Latin boys could have sung all night! As to us … forget it.

What a way to learn about cultural differences!

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