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.”