In June of 1992, my life changed forever. My previous date of a life altering event was when my father passed away in February of 1980.
At the age of 15, between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I attended a summer camp called Anytown, USA. Anytown, USA was sponsored by the National Conference of Community and Justice (NCCJ, formerly called the National Conference of Christians and Jews). At an old Girl Scout camp outside of Houston, 100 plus area teenagers came together to discuss what I presumed to be leadership skills, at least that is what I read in the pamphlet at school.
On the first night after getting settled in, we all packed into a common space where counselors and advisors started performing skits related to race, ethnicity, culture, and religion. They told awful racist jokes to each other. After a few minutes some of the campers started to cry, some even left the room. Some of the jokes still burn in my mind. They were so tasteless I prefer not even repeat them here.
After several minutes the counselors explained that hatred starts with just a joke. They set the climate for the week. We understood and were relieved to find out the upset campers had been prepared for the experience.
My life had been relatively sheltered to the pain of the outside world until Anytown, USA. My pain was deep and personal, sometimes debilitating. I selfishly projected it upon people around me, especially my family.
The next few days of camp were filled with breaking down common stereotypes that included beliefs about age, race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, and gender. We discussed heated topics in both and large and small groups. We sang songs as a group such as “Lean On Me” and “Hey Jude.” (I still have my song book, pictured above.) We were happy, joyous, and free. One of our culminating events on Wednesday was a cultural performance. Everyone was asked to participate in any group of which they most identified. The performances were beautiful, funny, and enlightening.
The mood of the campers was emboldened, ready and willing to attempt changing attitudes in our schools and communities. We thought we understood the message. That all changed on Thursday morning as soon as we got out of bed. Our counselor in my cabin was in a bad mood, barking orders about brushing teeth, hurrying up, and scolding anyone wiping the last few drops of sleep from their eyes.
Every morning started at the flag pole, and this morning was no different. But the mood had changed. Everyone was grumpy and edgy. A head counselor announced that we were to get into groups. The groups had been predetermined to what seemed similar to the culture groups from the night before. I assumed we were doing an activity related to our cultural performance. We were given armbands and asked to get with the others that had matching armbands. Once I found my group our counselor told us that we weren’t allowed to look at anyone outside of our circle, but I couldn’t help but notice that the groups were very different from the previous night. The African-Americans were in three different groups, separated by what appeared to be the pigment of their skin. The Jews were separated, the Vietnamese, Koreans, Catholics, Germans, Italians, etc.
As we headed out to breakfast we were told that we could not get any second helpings unless the entire group went through the line too. It was the same protocol for the bathroom or anywhere we needed or wanted to go. The cafeteria was quieter than previous mornings, and we were chastised for looking at other groups or smiling at friends.
After breakfast we went into our main gathering space. There was nothing wrong with anyone in my group; however, I had not made friends with most of them. I felt uncomfortable being around fellow campers that I had not previously tried to cultivate relationships. And then I saw my friend Heather in a group by herself. She was the only Filipino of our group. She sat alone, alone, crying.
Someone in another group decided to start singing “Lean On Me.” Everyone chimed in, but we did not share the verses together. The competition among groups was heated, some yelling the lyrics, others sitting in silent protest. I was frustrated and confused. I started commenting about how stupid the whole morning had been and asking questions about what we were doing. My counselor very sternly said, “Well, do something about it!”
When I looked up I saw fellow campers ripping their armbands from their arms and running to embrace their friends in other groups. Everyone finally understood that we did not have to listen to those who guided this exercise. We were laughing and crying and celebrating.
Segregation is ugly, possibly one of the ugliest forms of human hatred and misunderstanding. Later when we broke into our small discussion groups I could not be consoled. I cried and cried. I finally found my voice to say that for the first time in my life I had felt a pain greater than my father’s death. I was and continue to be completely overwhelmed by my experience that Thursday at an old Girl Scout camp on the outskirts of Houston.
Twenty-two years later I am still friends with some of those that I was lucky enough to meet that June. Our bonds are impenetrable.