Los Altos students and staff unveil the secrecy surrounding the controversial retreat, Camp Diversity, in wake of the school's decision to stop attending the camp.
February 12, 2019
After 14 years, Los Altos will no longer be sending students to Camp Diversity. In the past, groups of 60 to 70 students attended the semi-annual three-day retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Through the camp, the school intended to foster empathy amongst the student body and deepen appreciation for diversity back at school.
Since the camp is secretive—attendees are advised not to “spoil” the emotional impact of activities for future groups—some people have only heard about the camp’s specifics through the San Francisco Chronicle’s articles. Chronicle reporter Karen de Sá attended Camp Diversity and similar retreats last school year before publishing an exposé in June 2018 that described these camps’ methods as “reckless and potentially harmful” to vulnerable students.
Los Altos attendees, many of whom had attended the camp when de Sá conducted her report, had different opinions on Camp Diversity.
“I think [the reporter] saw the negative aspects of it,” senior Shawn Rose Ridgway said. “[She] wasn’t able to see what was actually happening inside of us, where we were growing rather than falling apart. There were moments where we’d all cry with each other, hug each other, show love, but I feel like she completely left that part out.”
While the activities described by de Sá did indeed happen at Camp Diversity, several students claimed they were generally more beneficial and eye-opening than traumatizing. One such activity was “gender night,” during which students were separated by gender and asked to list stereotypes about the opposite sex. The poster about boys included stereotypes such as suppressing emotion or not crying, and the girls’ poster listed terms like “c*mdumpsters,” “hoes” and “no means yes.” After reading the lists, the groups came together to discuss and share stories about their experiences with those stereotypes.
“[The boys’] poster had some things I didn’t realize people actually [believed],” senior Noelle Hanson said. “Then the boys started talking about how much pressure they feel to be masculine, and that was something I hadn’t thought of before.”
In another activity, students were asked to stand in a line, hold hands and take a step forward if a certain statement about privilege applied to them. Students stepped forward if they grew up with privileges such as having more than 50 books in their homes or having someone of Latino heritage work for them as a gardener. Once students were too far apart to hold hands, they had to let go of one another.
“I was pretty much at the front, [with the most privileged students,]” senior Jack Kloeckl said. “I remember I looked back and there were a lot of people standing really far back. It was just surprising to me that there could be such a big disparity between myself and the people at my high school.”
As well as teaching attendees about the differences between themselves, these activities also helped students bond over what they had in common.
“It showed us [how we were] connected,” senior Aimee Truscott said. “I was able to share something that was personal to me and people were able to share personal things about them. Even though [our] issues may be different, everybody still has things that are hard for them.”
On the last day of camp, all students participated in a simulation to enact real world stereotypes. Students were split into groups by race and given colored armbands for identification. People were then treated based on the color of their band, and those of different band colors were not allowed to interact. White students could cut in line while those of other races had to wait, and after meals, Hispanic students were expected to clean up. Signs with derogatory racial terms were hung up and students who tried to take them down were reprimanded.
During the October 2017 session, one group protested the simulation by making their own posters to encourage people to remove their identification bands. Once everybody had removed them, the activity officially came to a close and the students returned to their small groups to debrief what had just happened. Some students felt this opened their eyes to the harsh reality of race and privilege, while others considered the painstaking activities unnecessary.
“At first it was just an activity, so of course we [could] do something about [the unfair treatment],” junior Divya Jakatdar said. “But in the real world, it’s not so easy: what [armband] do you take off? What do you do? [It] was simultaneously eye-opening and super scary to imagine a world like that.”
Some students felt that the temporary discomfort of such activities was necessary for positive growth and discovery.
“We did some [activities] that put you in situations that you weren’t really comfortable with, but it makes you grow as a person,” junior Sean Li said. “To truly change yourself, to change how you feel and how you think about people, you have to step out of your comfort zone.”
For some people, being vulnerable with their peers allowed them to be more comfortable in their own skin and open up to others. When at Camp Diversity, senior Jasper Herrera Godinez began to explore his gender identity.
While it is true that several people had positive experiences, senior Noelle Hanson pointed out that the camp’s antiquated methods could still be harmful.
“You’re listening to these people who might feel pressured or might get caught up and start sharing these experiences and then realize this is bringing back a lot of trauma,” Noelle said. “And then you might feel good about listening, learning about all these people who have these experiences that you’ve never had, but it’s at the expense of this person.”
English teacher Carrie Abel-Shaffer, who attended Camp Diversity numerous times, believes that the camp forces authenticity and intends to provoke specific emotions. Although Abel-Shaffer’s first Camp Diversity experience was emotionally powerful and eye-opening, she was objective during her second experience and could reflect on the methods used.
“You’re setting students up to feel a certain way, or to have a certain reaction,” said Abel-Shaffer. “And I just think that some of the [the methods used are] outdated and unnecessary. [There] were other ways that you could have had those [difficult] conversations.”
Other students similarly recognize the positive intentions of the camp but were disappointed by its execution. During the simulation where people were asked to wear identification bands and segregate themselves, some students, including senior Reilly Dennedy, were asked to play the role of physically disabled students. Camp Diversity director Richard Valenzuela then taunted groups and slapped the “disabled” students on the back of the head.
“The idea of the program is positive,” Reilly said. “But I would like to see research-based activities, increased transparency and additional mental health resources. I recall certain activities crossing a line for me, especially when my head was hit downwards into a plate of eggs with my arms in a sock behind my back.”
Principal Wynne Satterwhite claims that the school’s decision to stop sending students to the retreat was not influenced by the San Francisco Chronicle’s article or the camp’s practices. The administration made the decision to stop attending Camp Diversity before the articles were published. Satterwhite said she was frustrated that de Sá infringed upon the students’ emotionally vulnerable state despite being disinvited by the school administration in October 2017.
According to Satterwhite, financial feasibility had the greatest influence on the decision to not return. In the 2017-2018 school year, the last school year that Los Altos went to Camp Diversity, the camp cost nearly $20,000. Much of this cost was covered by individual attendees, with financial aid for those who requested it.
In comparison, the standard cost of Challenge Day is $3,575, one-fifth of the total cost of Camp Diversity. Thus, the cost of each program relative to its length in days and the number of students served would be $6 per student per day for Challenge Day and $103 per student per day for Camp Diversity—nearly 20 times more.
In additional to financial feasibility, organizing Camp Diversity became more difficult after the retirement of activities director Cristy Dawson, who orchestrated Camp Diversity and its recruitment of attendees for years. According to Satterwhite, the goal of Camp Diversity was to inspire and motivate its participants to create change back at Los Altos. Without a teacher to champion the ideas of Camp Diversity and set a structure for students to translate their motivation into action, many students’ desire to change their behavior fizzles out within a few months after the camp, Satterwhite said.
Instead, Los Altos is transitioning towards Challenge Day as another diversity-focused activity. However, students acknowledge Challenge Day’s flaws. Many agree with junior Melaine Ideth-Hernandez, who believes that Challenge Day is too short to have a lasting impact.
“They do set time restraints [at Challenge Day],” an anonymous senior said. “You have one minute to talk about your story, and then it [goes to] the next person. They try to move you along nicely, but they still move [fast]. If you haven’t figured out [what you want to say] yet, you don’t really get to.”
The large number of students at Challenge Day can also make it harder for people to be vulnerable and take the activities to heart.
“People around me didn’t seem to be taking [Challenge Day] seriously,” Jack said. “I [think] because it’s at school and because it’s such a large group, you can’t really be as intimate [as at Camp Diversity].”
Junior Natalia Roman believes that because people had to voluntarily sign up to go to Camp Diversity, they were more willing to be vulnerable and contribute. In contrast, unless the student chooses to actively opt out, they are forced to go to Challenge Day, which results in uninterested students.
“When I was a freshman in high school, I definitely would have been very resistant to Challenge Day,” Assistant Principal Galen Rosenberg said. “[It’s] not that I wouldn’t have believed in the goals, but I would have been very uncomfortable with that kind of experience. Part of diversity is recognizing [that] different people are going to benefit from different kinds of experiences. I think we need to respect [that and] not assume that everybody needs the same experience to have the same kind of outcome.”
Some students and parents question why Los Altos offers diversity-focused activities at all, since they aren’t part of the traditional high school curriculum. However, Satterwhite believes that school is not just for academic development, but to also develop people.
Satterwhite believes that Challenge Day attempts to teach students values of communication, connection, and belonging.
“I readily admit that it’s hard to do,” Satterwhite said. “However, if you look at where we were 15 years ago, to where we are now, I think we’ve come miles down this road. But there’s still miles to go.”
Spilling the Camp Diversi-tea
Guest Column by Jasper Herrera-Godinez
Going to Camp Diversity was an eye-opening experience. I never could have imagined being in such intense situations and stepping out of my comfort zone. At Camp Diversity, I learned that it’s okay to open up to people because, most of the time, they will be there to listen.
Being at Camp Diversity helped me start my transition to discovering my gender identity. I remember being very hesitant about putting my deadname (a given name from before someone changes it) onto the nametag we had to make ourselves. Something sparked inside me when I arrived at the campsite. I was able to express myself without worrying about what my family thought. Overall, I do have to say that toward the end, referring to myself by my name made me feel more confident.
Camp Diversity also helped me open up to people and be less scared when doing so. There were so many different kinds of activities that we did, but I think ones that really got to me were the small group activities. We shared so much about ourselves in those small groups, mostly because we were only a few people and I didn’t have to worry about lots of people staring at me. However, sometimes things got intense during talks or group activities and I didn’t know what to do or who to go to in the beginning. Later on, I began to realize that people were willing to listen and comfort me. People gave me hugs and support. It felt really good to have that.
One small group activity really stuck with me and made me feel more connected to the people I was grouped up with. Everyone talked about their families and what their home life was like. It was really stunning to get to know your peer’s truth, their ‘at home lives.’ It showed me that people are willing to be vulnerable around you if you’re there to sit and listen to them; it creates a special little bond between you and the other person.
From Camp Diversity, I learned that while everyone might have a dark past or present, we can be there for them and help them through it. We can be there for people and change their lives, just as they helped change mine. When you’re together for three days at Camp Diversity and constantly sharing with people, everyone starts to feel like family.
My mind, my body, my healing
Guest column by Leah Gaylord
I attended Camp Diversity in November 2017. This past summer, an exposé article on Camp Diversity appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Reading the article, I felt there was a big disparity between the camp I experienced and the one I was reading about. While I understand the criticism in the article (perhaps Valenzuela crossed some lines), I still look back on camp as a positive experience.
My Camp Diversity was an eye-opening experience and a reminder that there is about 90 percent of a person that is completely private, and that the other 10 percent is a crafted public persona. It had been a watershed moment for me, as it was the first time I had spoken about a significant trauma in my life, one that had taken me five months to share with anyone. And the article seemed to tell me that it would have been better for me to have said nothing at all than open up at camp. Yet I know, had I been silent, I would never have talked about my trauma to anyone, ever.
I resent the reporter because her story bashes an experience that was cathartic and therapeutic for me. The article takes issue with how “it’s ethically objectionable to unearth students’ own pain and to put it on display for others” and how “opening up too fast or in the wrong setting can be ‘triggering,’ a dangerous state that can lead to greater emotional pain.” Because of these words, I began to question if I was mishandling my trauma and if being vulnerable by speaking about it openly was even a healthy thing to do. The article also brought back my fears about being open in the first place as it describes portions of the camp as “a hellscape with literally no imagined positive.” This description is completely antithetical to everything I’d taken away from my time at Camp Diversity and caused me even greater concern about my state of mental health. Had I been duped into doing something foolish? Was this a case of manipulation of my emotions that distorted the reality of my camp experience? Was I really starting to heal? Or would things suddenly get worse?
I credit my time at Camp Diversity to the beginning of my healing process. In the time between camp and the article, I worked to slowly vocalize my trauma to people in my life such as my English teacher and eventually a psychologist: confidants who encouraged my self-expression as a therapeutic outlet. These same confidants assured me, amidst my doubts, that my camp experience was vital in my recovery. And it has been with their help and through my therapy that I have circled back to my original resolution: that ultimately, my camp experience was genuine and important in my own healing and personal growth.
Not a recipe for diversity
I got invited to attend Camp Diversity three times.
Each one of those times, I declined to attend.
When it came to the camp itself, I saw many of my peers seem to enjoy the experience, and they were grateful for the chance to make new friends. For the most part, I didn’t really think much of any particular issues.
Yet, when it came to the selection process, I was bothered. In the years I was asked to attend Camp Diversity, I wasn’t visible on campus and I didn’t express any interest in the camp.
That’s why every single time I got selected to attend, I always felt like a token. I felt like a student who was plucked and placed into the program for just being black. In these moments of reflection, I didn’t care about what this camp could provide. No matter how many students claimed that they were “forever changed” by this experience, I never wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t feel comfortable going to a place where I had no idea of what could happen.
Fast forward to the start of last summer. A San Francisco Chronicle article was published on Camp Diversity. What appeared to be a normal camp was painted as quite possibly the most ludicrous experience our school used to put students through.
You can read the news article on Camp Diversity in this very issue about the forced segregation, the use of repeated forms of hate speech to call out different groups and so much more. The methods of this camp aren’t just wrong; they are pointless.
Time and time again, I’ve written about, had discussions amongst peers and been pushed by adults to share the prejudice and racism that I’ve faced. Yet, explaining the microaggressions that come with being black has never been the reason I’ve connected with my friends and peers. No moments where privileged peers pitied my own issues actually led to constructive talks. It was through joy, through cultural expression and simple, organic conversations that people began to understand who I am.
This is why I’m also not just strongly against the premise of Camp Diversity, but also of Challenge Day itself. Participating as a senior through the Challenge Day assembly was underwhelming. I’m not saying it wasn’t interesting to be a part of a standing up activity where you share some of your most personal stories. What I’m saying is, “So what?” What has this school done to follow up these conversations with actual changes? I’m not saying that having a day where freshmen can go have deep conversations is necessarily a bad thing, but it is ineffective in creating the result we’re all trying to achieve: inclusion.
The annual Diversity Assembly is to be commended. It’s an example of our school making a calculated, productive step in helping people be comfortable being themselves on campus. This assembly doesn’t cost the school thousands of dollars, and it can be done on a smaller scale, more frequently. Furthermore, why not continue to have cultural conversations in classrooms, building in time as some teachers already do, to share their own experiences among people they trust and not a random group of strangers?
At the end of the day, inclusion will never be truly accomplished for everyone. When you’re in an environment where one-quarter of the entire population leaves every single year, the options to create a more united community are limited. However, that does not mean that we as a school should not try. Camp Diversity and Challenge Day both have intents that should not be discounted. However, their methods are not only absurdly expensive, but lack the follow through to ensure that change is prolonged.
For the first two years of my high school career, there were many moments where I felt as though I did not belong at this school. For some of you reading, you too may be in the same place right now. But you can reach out, talk to a peer, ask them questions and take the time to learn about who they are as humans. The conversations that begin organically are most often the ones that can bring out the best in all of us, not through forced simulations. Maybe if our school began to focus a bit more in just letting students talk amongst each other in classes, who knows, maybe we all might have a few more friends.
A camper’s side of the story
Guest column by Shawn Rose Ridgway
I decided to go to Camp Diversity during my junior year because I had heard a lot of positive things and I wanted to experience it for myself. Overall, I found my experience to be amazing.
Camp Diversity brought me so much closer to the people around me because of the exercises we all went through together. It was sometimes easy to feel separated from others because we were physically segregated from each other in a few of the exercises based on race or gender. Afterward, when we were all able to talk about how much we all mean to one another, we felt a lot closer than we did before.
I also became closer to myself by learning more about myself. During these activities we all had the chance to share our own experiences, so it was often silent except for the sound of the person speaking and our own thoughts. You had to rely on yourself to get through the emotional intensity of situations and in that experience, you became closer with yourself. It was my first time talking about a lot of the things brought up in the discussions and the activities showed me that I didn’t have to suppress my struggles anymore.
One of the biggest things I took away from camp was how unfair personal bias and prejudice can be. I think that most of the time when we see people, we automatically assume that we know who they are and what they’re like just because of how they look. But while I was there, I learned that people who I would have never expected to had gone through some of the same things as me.
The reporter who wrote the article in the San Francisco Chronicle wasn’t actually experiencing the camp, but watched from the outside. So, in my opinion, her reportings weren’t accurate. I don’t think anyone can really know the truth about Camp Diversity unless they go through it themselves. While she was there, the reporter was very invasive while we were vulnerable; she recorded us speaking about traumatic experiences without our consent. Eventually, we all just blocked her out because of how tired we were of her.
In the article, she took all of the semi-negative aspects and blew them out of proportion. For example, during one of the activities, a piece of balled up paper was thrown at a student and the reporter exaggerated this in the article. She made it seem as though we were being abused while we were there, which was not the case at all.
While she was interviewing us, she baited us with questions like, “aren’t you overwhelmed?” or “doesn’t this bother you?” She had a negative perspective from the start.
I think her article is incredibly unfair because the evidence she presented doesn’t represent our actual experiences. She represented how she wanted us to feel in order to support her preconceptions. There was so much good happening at camp and it saddens me that she made Camp Diversity out to be so terrible.
I’m upset that Los Altos students won’t be able to go to Camp Diversity because I believe everyone deserves the chance to experience something that beautiful.
Unity in diversity and differences
Guest Column by Tori Hausch
I think what impacted each individual’s Camp Diversity experience was their mindset. Everyone who attended Camp Diversity chose to be there, and though there was a lot of secrecy surrounding the specific things we did at camp, many people who went agree that it was a very impactful experience and changed the way they view the world and themselves. We were encouraged to share as much or little as we felt comfortable because ultimately the goal was to understand more about ourselves through sharing our own experiences and hearing from the people around us.
On the first night, we focused a lot on race, ethnicity and the stereotypes surrounding them. We were asked to separate ourselves by what we identify as and then leave the room while the rest of the group listed out common slurs and stereotypes that pertained to the group of people who had left the room. Because I am biracial, I felt like a lot of the things listed for “Asian” and “White” either did not apply to me or were not fueled by as much hostility as there were for other people– like being called a “terrorist” or the n-word. In this sense, I consider myself lucky. I have never experienced discrimination from other people based on my race– in fact, the attitudes surrounding “mixed” or biracial people is something I would liken to fetishization (i.e how many people talk about “light-skin” babies or that two people should have children because they would have “cute mixed babies”). But, because I have not faced racial discrimination myself, it was important for me to see how it affects others. If I am not aware of the hardships that others face, then how can I be a vehicle for constructive and positive change? Even though the activity did not resonate with me on a very personal level, it served to reveal a lot of unconscious associations that society at large makes about people based on their outward appearance of race.
The second night we did something similar to the night before, but with terms associated with gender. After being separated into male and female groups, we came back together to reveal the lists that we had made. My female-identifying classmates and I made a list based on our own interactions with males was. Words like “violent,” “aggressive,” “hyper-sexual” were on the list. Our perception of men from a female perspective was often one of fear, resentment, anger or frustration.
Many of the words ascribed to women stemmed from common pop culture portrayals of women in society: “whore,” “weak,” “submissive,” “c*m dumpster” and countless other words that label women as inferior and overly sexualized by others. The words “hoe,” “b*tch” and “slut” are often used in a joking manner, and we concluded as a group that it is in the pursuit of this humor that the true meaning and harm that these words hold is forgotten. I saw that many of the male students, and female students as well, lightheartedly used these words to describe women and were often not confronted about how harmful those words actually are. After we digested the lists that were read to us, we sat in lines across from each other and the facilitator told us to raise our hands if the statements he read applied to us. “Raise your hand if you have ever been told that you are not ‘manly’ enough,” “raise your hand if you have ever been catcalled on the street by a stranger,” “raise your hand if you have ever been hit by a man,” “raise your hand if you have ever been sexually assaulted”; it went on and on. We sat in silence as we watched each other grapple with how their lives have been negatively affected by gender stereotypes. It was a powerful night for me. Not only did I realize that I’m not alone in feeling powerless simply because I’m a woman, but I also saw the male perspective and how men deal with their own set of expectations and societal pressures.
A lot of our opinions and perceptions of others are so internalized that they become an innate part of who we are. Camp Diversity challenged the way I thought about myself and the people around me. I saw how much there actually is to learn from others when we are conscious about how we interact with the people around us. Too often do people get away with hurting others because of their internalized prejudices and don’t have to face the consequences. I think the Camp Diversity “experience” was important such that it was a place where people could confront their own prejudices in a controlled environment and be able to learn from them in a constructive way.