What did you learn at the Encampment?
I learned so much that it’s hard to know where to begin. The most important insight was acknowledging racism and its impact on all Americans. Coming from a small, mostly white town in upstate New York, I knew very few non-white people and had a naïve vision of celebrity-based racial equality, if I ever even thought about it. (I did have a strong sense of difference, though, as a member of the only Jewish family in my entire rural, conservative K–12 school system until I was in high school, when my family moved.) The Encampment introduced me to urban life, and made me stare in the face of racial inequality and question the link between race and poverty. It made me acknowledge the stain I bore (and bear) as a white American and begin to formulate reasonable approaches I could undertake to addressing racism — a lifelong formulation, to be sure.
What motivated you to go to the Encampment?
I was active in union-side labor activities in my hometown and someone I knew through those activities was familiar with the Encampment. I believe his sister knew about it through a friendship with Bob Factor, a professor of labor studies and an Encampment staffer. My friend gave me a brochure and application. I wanted to be with people my age who shared my interest in progressive politics, especially labor-related.
When you arrived, what was your first impression of the Encampment?
Hot! We slept on cots set up in a chemistry lab at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, without air conditioning (I didn’t have A/C at home either, but it wasn’t as hot). I also remember feeling excited that the people around me, many of whom looked different from me, would likely become my friends. Finally, I remember marveling that kids dressed differently from me. At my high school, there was a strong dress code depending on your social group. As a sort of “hippie” (a few years too young for the actual classification), I wore only certain kinds of jeans, shoes, T-shirts. I found the anything-goes dress code of the Encampment utterly liberating from Day One.
What topic did you spend the most time on at the Encampment and what did you learn?
I chose the workshop called Work and Society, led by Bob. We worked on the boycott of the JP Stevens textile company, a campaign I’d already been active on at home for several years
We spent many evenings in discussions about poverty and race. I remember two staffers very well in these conversations: Kwame and Alvaro. They forced us to consider — and I mean really consider — why urban slums were full of people of color. It was such powerful consciousness-raising. In retrospect, it may have been a little bit of “aware-ifying” rather than getting us to read and think. Kids often didn’t know how to answer Kwame’s loud questions and he would tell us we would have to stay in the room until we answered him, until we came to some kind of consensus about why people of color were disproportionately poor in the U.S.
How did camper self-government work for your Encampment?
I don’t recall much about this, but I know we Encampers must have resented some of the rigidity or control that the staff exerted because in the last week or two, we organized a kind of mutiny called Operation 6:20. At 6:20 p.m., in the middle of dinner, we stood up and executed an elaborate plan to “take over” the program, treating staff harshly to give them a taste of their own medicine. After an hour or two, I suppose we loosened up and discussed what we were doing. But the whole affair involved extensive planning, leadership roles and more. After they caught on, the staff were proud of us! I still think of us sometimes when the clock says 6:20!
What field trips do you remember?
I remember a powerful day of farm work in Goshen, NY. A few hours of back-breaking labor were enough to help us all appreciate the heroic work of the impoverished farmworkers who picked our produce. I think we slept on the bus all the way back to the city.
I also recall a trip to the country — I don’t know where, but here the difference between city kids and the rest of us emerged, with mostly good humor. The city kids freaked out about the insects while those of us from rural and suburban areas were struck by the fancy “city clothes” our urban friends brought along for country activities like hiking!
I also remember a field trip that our workshop made to one of the Potemkin auto sales shops. I think the purpose was to see high-end cars when we’d been studying disenfranchised labor. It didn’t mean much to me since I had no idea how much cars should cost.
Our workshop went repeatedly to Bloomingdale’s, where we hung out in the housewares section distributing pamphlets encouraging customers to boycott JP Stevens. We were asked to leave on numerous occasions but figured we’d keep trying.
What community service projects do you remember?
I remember learning the term “sweat equity” through a day-long community service project at Banana Kelly, a community development corporation in the South Bronx. We helped to clean up a lot strewn with junk. The lot was going to be turned into affordable housing and a community center. I was incredibly inspired and believe that day nurtured a strong interest in community development, which I have pursued in my career.
How did the Encampers get along? How did this change over the time you were together?
I think we generally got along well, but there were exceptions. One girl, who had been sexually assaulted some years earlier, had a traumatic experience when Encampment classmates tried to throw her (and others) in the stream of a loosened fire hydrant on a hot day. They didn’t understand how frantic her shouts of “NO!” were. That created tension for a while.
I also recall a pretty good-natured tension about what kind of music we would listen to for dancing — the white kids wanted rock, the black kids wanted R&B, the Latino kids wanted salsa. (I don’t remember what the Asian or Native American kids wanted.) We learned from each other.
One girl had a physical disability as well as an accent (she was not a native English speaker) and I recall some discussion about how she felt belittled. In general, while cliques formed, I think we made an effort to resist them — like sitting at tables with different people (not just people who looked different from us, but people we felt we hadn’t gotten to know as well).
We had our age and times in common and that was powerful stuff. Of course, our backgrounds were so different. I recall mostly a healthy exchange of difference — like turning each other onto our respective favorite musics (how did we do that without iPhones?!) and books and favorite classes and college plans. I remember consciously trying not to gravitate toward the people who were most like me. In fact, I may have started off on the wrong foot with a lovely Canadian woman who brought her guitar to play folk music. It felt too close to where I came from and I think I ignored her at first.
What were some of your favorite leisure-time activities?
We liked to hang out and listen to music. I remember one of our favorite songs was Santa Esmeralda’s “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”! And Le Freak and Last Dance.
How has the Encampment influenced your life?
I came to the Encampment with an already-developed commitment to social change, but the particular focus — combating racism and promoting tolerance — was strongly influenced by the Encampment. I wrote my college application essay about my experience at the Encampment; was a charter member of a group on campus called the Student Committee on Racial Awareness, which conducted workshops for student groups on racial bias; studied U.S. history with a focus on immigration and diversity; and have had a career dedicated to ending poverty and inequity through initiatives in public health, workforce development, community development, immigrant and refugee resettlement, and child welfare.
Why is the EFC important now?
The importance of cultivating tolerance and understanding during this most trying time is obvious. Of equal importance is developing leaders from among enlightened young people. That hate, intolerance and untruth can parade as “official” is unacceptable and can only be met with regime change, and that will only happen when current and future generations of leaders come forward to challenge the status quo.