Youth Advisory Council (YAC) Intern/Advisor Angel Mendez interviews his fellow Intern/Advisor Marquise Steward. [Opportunities to get involved in Youth Advisory Council activities are listed at the end of this article.]
Angel: How are you?
Marquise: I’m stressed by COVID, but super-happy and grateful to have my family and friends still with me at this time. I am also grateful to have employment that incorporates my passion for social justice work.
How are you affiliated with the Encampment?
I’m currently the Youth Advisory Council rep on the EFC board and I’m also an intern/advisor. I went to the Encampment in 2015 (in Mississippi). I was also an intern (2017 MA) and then a senior intern (2018 MS).
How did you learn about EFC?
In high school, two community leaders — Jason Neal (EFC alum 1989 CA) and Nancy Marr (EFC alum 1950 NY) introduced me to the Encampment. We had an event where high schoolers went to our middle school to talk about how peer pressure can lead to substance abuse and how not to fall into the pressure by having honest conversations. Nancy Marr saw me in action and asked if I wanted to go to the Encampment. I was told it was a leadership program, and that piqued my interest. I received a sponsorship to go and the rest is history.
What are some things the Encampment taught you — skills, tools, experiences?
The Encampment taught me that I have a lot of privileges that I have to use to advance others in my community. At the time, I was 16–17 and I knew that there were indigenous people but I had had no real contact. It’s like I knew about the Great Wall of China, but if you’ve never really been there, you haven’t really felt the Great Wall of China. When you hear that there are disenfranchised people – or undocumented people, it’s like a privileged thing — to have read an article or seen in a textbook that there are people like this is one thing, but it’s different to hear about it and then you actually get to the Encampment and they are real. They are tangible — they are the people I’ll have lunch with or call or cry on their shoulder. For me, there was no more hiding behind this privilege and no more of my own individual gripe — “I’m gay and I’m Black and the world does not care for me, so I don’t care for the world.” The Encampment opened my eyes to know that a lot of things are connected. It’s even a privilege to think that you are disconnected from certain systems of oppression. If someone is being oppressed because of their status as an undocumented citizen, that still leads to you as a Black person because at one point, you were considered three-fifths of a person. History repeats itself in many different ways and it’s my job to stand up and make a change for whatever I want to see in the future … be the man I want to be.
It taught me to check my privilege. It taught me to think critically about why certain things were happening and events in history repeating — the Encampment started that process for me.
It also has pushed the trajectory of my career because now I want to work in education and diversity and LGBTQIA+ initiatives. It’s an educational camp and it’s about diversity, leadership and community-building. It was definitely a huge influence, and I owe that to the Encampment.
What was your experience after leaving the Encampment?
This was a time that Black Lives Matter was beginning to gain traction and in my heart I kept saying, “All lives matter, duh — we don’t need this divide, we just need police brutality to stop.” After the Encampment, I felt devastated that I would say something like that out of ignorance. I felt enraged. I had gone through this three-week intensive experience that really shifted gears for me. There was a lot of anger and misunderstandings; a lot of seeing things through another lens that my privilege did not allow before. Then it went eventually to a lot of understanding and depth in my character, a lot of empathy, compassion and responsibility that I take and hold to my heart. I’m still for everybody. However, I can’t be for the people who have their foot on the necks of others and don’t know it.
You gotta love that character development.
I could have developed in other ways. I wonder if I would have voted for Trump if I didn’t go to the Encampment? And, if I thought about it through the individual lens and my own experience — yes, I’m Black but I’m a lighter skin-toned, Black person; I have both parents; I have financial access; I now have a degree. All these layers can keep me away from what the truth is, although I’d like to give myself some credit — I don’t think I would have been all for Trump, but I might have been a little lenient toward Trump. I was just thinking about myself at the time.
How do you see the components that you have learned at the Encampment being used in your work?
I currently work for LGBTQA Initiatives (at Florida International University). Everything that we do in our office has to be thought about through a diversity lens. You have to take into account a lot of other peoples’ experiences. I do not identify as someone from the trans community; however, I need to understand the struggles and obstacles, and also the brilliance of the trans community, to assist better. It’s about critically questioning and critically thinking about what we are doing — what conversations are we having? What spaces are we allowing to exist? That’s something that the Encampment has taught me. We made our own community. We made community guidelines and discussed things openly. We were sat down in circles, understanding that everyone’s voice here was equal. One thing I still love to this day is the feather with the one mic, allowing that person to speak and to be heard. Everyone’s voice matters and we are all in it together at the end of the day. There was no real, singular lead at the Encampment.
Did the Encampment provide any notable opportunities to help you grow?
I’m currently an intern/advisor with the Youth Advisory Council with one of my best Encampment buds — you. I have been able to reconnect with so many inspirational young people all around the country. Back in July, with the world dealing with COVID, I thought it was the perfect time to dedicate my efforts to the Youth Advisory Council. Since then, we have received interest from recent alums to get involved; initiated and helped to facilitate a Voting Rights workshop with education director Michael Carter for the Black Student Union, funded by my alma mater Pace University; and begun the work of building a solid infrastructure with EFC staff for youth leadership to come. We are hard at work to make our goals of more youth leadership in the Encampment a reality.
Looking back, I had other notable opportunities from the time I was an Encamper. The Fall Leadership Institute held at the Blue Mountain Center in Blue Mountain Lake — I think you were there, too? That was super-cool. I wish we could do more stuff like that. It was an intensive weekend. It was amazing. I loved it and I love how the Encampment brings us to these culturally relevant areas. I love to say that I’ve been to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum that draws the connections between forms of racial injustice from slavery to incarceration, including a memorial to the thousands of people who were lynched.
At the 70th Anniversary Celebration, I was able to sit on a panel with the president of the Borough of Manhattan (Gale Brewer, 1968 MT alum) and talk about our different experiences and what we were doing in social justice work. I like being able to plan and lead initiatives with the Youth Advisory Council. I am able to be myself — it goes back to the family aspect. I can bring my skills to the table and refine them here at the Encampment in an accepting, warm and loving environment. I’m doing the work that I love to do thanks to the Encampment and having an impact on youth members and pushing the narrative and conversation farther. And any time I get on the [board meeting] call as the youngest board member, it’s such an honor.
What is your advice for future Encampers?
When you come to the Encampment, be ready to not be ready. There are a lot of things that the Encampment pushes you into that you think you already know. You think, ”Oh, I know this topic, so I’m here for it.” Like I could talk about racism and feel like I have a strong stance on it, but it’s challenging because not everyone has access to those resources or experiences to fully comprehend something as deep-rooted as racism. In that moment when you are creating your community, there’s going to be a lot of challenging times and you are going to have to be prepared to challenge some of your own views. We all have things about us that are problematic. I would also say “be unready” because the Encampment is transforming you into something that has never been done before — not necessarily changing your “DNA” as a community member, but really changing the structure of how it operates. My experience as an Encamper compared to yours is going to be completely different, and that’s okay. Be ready to be unready.
For the future of the Encampment, we need you — we need your thoughts, your ideas, your passion. We need to move to the beat of your drum because you are the lifeline. Eventually our generation will fade out and we need the future generations to stand up.
As you know, the Encampment teaches you to be a global citizen — what do you think of the world today?
You know when you are in social studies class and you learn about all these things that happened in the 1900s and you think, “Wow, that’s so crazy that happened”? I’m in a place where I’m thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe this is happening right now.” This election was so important. All elections are important, but this one will set a tone for the next four years of this country. The last four years have shaken us to our core. Globally, there are a lot of initiatives that are being moved and people are becoming not just more aware of injustices, but it is now mainstream and popular to see the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter everywhere. I think my generation is slowly but surely picking up our pace to become more active in terms of social justice activities.
I like the way we are going. I like the conversations — since the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, we will never be the same. I think we have finally kicked down a door, not the door, but a door, to having these conversations about privilege, about micro- and macro-aggressions, about pay gaps, about hiring diverse individuals and how diversity will be implemented. A lot of pledges have been made, and I don’t take that lightly. The American people don’t take it lightly, either. We are holding people accountable and demanding justice. I think it is just as serious as the #MeToo movement in terms of sexual harassment. This is something that is here to stay. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Nina Pop are some of the names whose experiences shook the world and caused it to stop. Because of that, other protests were able to come out and make changes, such as #EndSARS in Nigeria. I’m proud to see people are standing up for what they believe in. Being an Encamper tunes you into that conversation.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
We are calling all EFC alums and supporters to make a change — or continue to make changes — in your community. We want you to know that the Encampment is your community. Let’s continue our work, past the summer program, to make an impact around the world. All it takes is one to influence the many.
YOU ARE INVITED
Alums from recent Encampments (2013–20) are invited to join the first Youth Advisory Council meeting on Tuesday, November 24, at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central/6 p.m. Mountain/5 p.m. Pacific. This is an opportunity to learn about opportunities for leadership in the Encampment. https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88549119657
Meeting ID: 885 4911 9657
All EFC community members are invited to a community sing-along featuring Ms. Jane Sapp on Saturday, November 28, at 3 p.m. Eastern/2 p.m. Central/1 p.m. Mountain/12 noon Pacific.
Meeting ID: 872 9546 4410
For information about either of these events, email firstname.lastname@example.org.