History of the Encampment for Citizenship
Encampment for Citizenship, Kentucky 1969.
Photo provided by Vincent Wright, staff member.
“The more people who are uninvolved, the fewer people who make the decisions... the more apathy, the less democracy… What we want is to get more people on the cutting edge of the decision-making process. This is what makes democracy work.”
This is the purpose and program of the Encampment since its inception in 1946 -- to make democracy work by training youth for informed, responsible and effective citizenship participation."
—Article about the Encampment for Citizenship, LOOK Magazine (1965)
The Encampment for Citizenship (EFC) was founded in 1946 by Algernon D. Black, a leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC), and Alice K. Pollitzer, a prominent civic leader, as an opportunity for “young adults of many religious, racial, social and national backgrounds” to learn “the principles and techniques of citizenship… through lived experience.” Al Black was inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), but thought those programs lacked diversity and didn’t explore the meaning of democracy enough for a lasting impact. The Encampment was founded on the core idea that young people can be a positive force in their communities if they develop critical thinking skills, youth activism, leadership qualities and the courage to break free from stereotypes.
The sponsorship of the American Ethical Union and its affiliated societies (in particular, the New York Society for Ethical Culture) was secured, and the Encampment for Citizenship was launched. The young men and women who took part in the first Encampment for Citizenship were from every part of the United States and from several other countries. White, Black, American Indian, Japanese-American and Mexican-American, North and South, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, farmer, office worker, factory worker, miner, veteran, student—all were represented. In these early years, the “Encampers” were young adults in their late teens and early twenties.
The Early Years
“Much of the Encampment’s success is due to its being geared to the real world—real problems and real strengths. We are not afraid of the controversial. It’s tremendously gratifying to see the effect on young adults; it genuinely helps them lead better lives. We know that the Encampment experience really gets under their skins. Most important, it helps a young adult, feel identified with America and with its heritage, and understand- he has a personal stake in it.”
—William Shannon, former EFC Director
Encampers established their own government and were guided toward socio-political activism, a sense of civic responsibility and participation—all in an environment that supported tolerance and diversity.
“I’ve gained a better understanding of rural poverty, race relations, and just how to get along with people. I have lost many of my stereotypes and have learned to accept people as individuals. I have learned that to get something done, one has to get out and work for it and not just talk about it.”
—a small town Ohioan
“It was a joyful wonderful summer for me. For …weeks we acted like brothers and sisters. We learned new languages, faced new problems. I hope in years to come, I will be in close contact with you all. Thanks to everyone who helped make it possible.”
—a teen from Brooklyn
Eleanor Roosevelt, a long-time chair of the EFC board of sponsors, was an early supporter of the program and often hosted the entire Encampment for discussions and workshops at her Hyde Park estate. When the program was attacked by McCarthyite forces in the early 1950s, she defended it vigorously.
“The reason I think these Encampments are so important is that they are attended by citizens of different races and groups. They prepare people for thinking in terms of all people and not in terms of a selected few. Not only we in the U.S., but people all over the world, need young people trained to be good citizens with an ability to think with an open mind.”
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., greeting Encampers.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was a supporter and speaker at the Encampment. John F. Kennedy linked the Encampment with the development of vital citizenship skills and with the Peace Corps. William Haddad, EFC alum (1950) was director under Sargent Shriver at the Peace Corps and O.E.O. and had this to say: “Many of us conceive of the Peace Corps as an expansion of some of the ideas outlined at the Encampment.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, civil rights activist and long standing Congresswoman (DC), is an alum of the 1957 Encampment. She says the Encampment is “one of the most significant models for getting young people seriously and thoughtfully involved in public policy and matters of local and national importance. I will never forget my own experience as a young person eager for discovery of the issues at that time.”
Encampers lived democratic principles and made history during Jim Crow segregation:
“I was a member of the Encampment in 1966, at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. It was a powerful moment in our country’s history, and it all swirled around us, even in a small college setting. My experience opened my eyes, filled my heart and confirmed my commitment to make working for social change the center of my life. And I know—without a moment’s hesitation—that the experience I had at the Encampment for Citizenship in 1966 was one of the most important formative events of the commitments I have to this day”.
— Miles S. Rapoport, former president, Demos and Common Cause
The End of the Century
By 1996, over 7,000 young people had attended Encampment programs at sites across the United States and Puerto Rico. Locations included the New York City area; Puerto Rico; Berkeley, CA; Arizona; Louisville, KY; Mexico; Great Falls, MT; Denver, CO; Washington, DC; Navajo Nation, Tohatchi, NM; and the Adirondacks. The program site often influenced the focus of a given Encampment. For example, the Adirondacks program emphasized conservation and environmental issues, while the Denver, CO and White Plains, NY Encampments focused more on urban social issues.
Various studies have shown that the program succeeded in inspiring its participants in many ways.
“The richness and vividness of the camper’s personal experiences are inescapable. Overall satisfaction is indicated by the willingness of five campers out of six to recommend the Encampment to someone like themselves. . . Changes which trainees most frequently saw in themselves were increases in tolerance and understanding, in maturity, in independence, and in activism… Friendships to an extraordinary extent crosscut class lines. . . - Almost three-fourths of the campers said they want to be in touch with other campers ‘frequently’.”
—Herbert Hyman, Columbia University School of Applied Research Evaluation (See also Further Reading)
After a Hiatus, a Rebirth
The Encampment continued into the 1980s and 1990s. After a 16-year hiatus, the Encampment re-launched with a 2-week pilot program in Richmond, VA in 2013, followed by successful 3-week programs in Chicago, IL in 2014; Jackson, MS in 2015; and Amherst, MA in 2016.
2013 Encampment, Richmond VA.