Sunday, September 24, 2017

Camp CommUNITY Reflection - Jay Gilliam

Jay Gilliam—1999, Counselor 2001 and 2002
BA, MA
Rotary World Peace Fellow 2008-2010 in Tokyo, Japan

In 1999, I was asked to attend Camp CommUNITY.  Little did I know that this invitation would open new doors into my future, and I will forever be grateful to the individual who honored me with this invitation.

I recently went back to read some of my college application essays about Camp CommUNITY to see what I talked about then and how it connected with where I am today. My essays back then talked a lot about racial reconciliation and understanding and working through the prejudices we all have, especially the ones inside ourselves. Reading those words helped bring back a flood of memories from my initial camp experience and the two times I returned as a camp counselor.

I remember the early morning hill-side singing that felt “cheesy” the first few times but that changed into a morning bonding ritual with my fellow campers and counselors to wake ourselves up and enjoy the fresh morning air. I also remember the ceremonious daily flag raising and lowering that became a reflection of the various differences and similarities that connected all of the campers. Finally, I remember the late night chats and games with my cabin mates, all of us exhausted from a full day of stretching our mental capabilities but not yet exhausted enough for us to want to end it all just yet.

Although my essays back then focused on racial issues, I remember other issues that we began to touch on, such as class, religion and gender. Looking back now, I can see how my experience at Camp CommUNITY helped to enlarge that initial spark of interest I had in these issues and lay the foundation for my studies in college, graduate school, and community work. I can see now that much of what has connected my life's work is mutual understanding between different groups of people who often have very different points of view and problems arising from that. This has been a central part of both my personal and professional life, as I connect and reconcile the various identities inside of me and reconcile the different groups of people in my life. At Camp CommUNITY, I began to learn how to do this for race and class by putting into words the fears and prejudices we all have about each other and then, through that, learning to work past those fears and prejudices to understand the individuals behind the group labels. The various group activities at Camp CommUNITY, especially cultural night, helped me to learn all of this.

Like working my way through a concentric circle and building upon and expanding what I learned at this summer camp, in college I added to my Camp CommUNITY experience. Coming from Texas to go to a small, elite East Coast private school, I encountered a world and culture that was very different from the Southern hospitality I was used to, yet Camp CommUNITY prepared me to deal with differences. In college, regional, gender, and sexuality differences were added to that initial list of race and class to understand how these newly awakened prejudices can also hinder my ability to build strong relationships with others. This time, I had not only personal experiences but also an academic perspective on how I might be able to help others get past these same issues by telling them about my own experiences and sharing with them what I learned in my studies.

Now my time in Japan as a student of peace studies and conflict resolution continues that link of working for mutual understanding and reconciliation between various groups of people in the world. Expanding that circle again, I am now learning to deal with and understand differences among people that come from different countries, different religions, and, ultimately, different cultures than my own. I am learning to understand how my classmates from Bangladesh or South Africa sees the world very different from my western, Christian, and privileged eyes. An international experience adds a crucially important dimension in understanding and learning from those differences among people. Yet my current focus on how to reconcile those many differences brings me back to and builds upon what I initially encountered and learned at Camp CommUNITY: the important but hard work of mending in a peaceful and sustainable way all of those differences we learned about. Of course, the deeper I learn about issues, the more difficult they seem to solve, yet, as my experience at Camp CommUNITY can attest to, that difficulty in no way lessens my commitment to that work. In a way, it strengthens it.

I would have never guessed that I would be on the other side of the world today thinking about many of the same things I thought about my first time at Camp CommUNITY, but I know that without my experiences at this camp as a camper and counselor, I would not have gained the skills I have used and continue to use today in my personal and professional life to deal with, learn from, and accept the people I have encountered from different countries, cultures and experiences. I only spent one week at Camp CommUNITY in the summer of 1999, but that week left an impression that will surely last a lifetime!

 

 

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