Eleyna Fugman participated in the 1991 Encampment at Point Bonita, Marin Headlands, CA. She is a sustaining donor who gives monthly to support the EFC. In this interview, she shares her memories from 1991, her thoughts about how the EFC influenced her life and a reflection on the Encampment’s role today.

 What did you learn at the Encampment? I learned about systemic oppression. I grew up next to the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California. My community was a pretty equal mix of White and Native people, mostly working-class people and people struggling for basic resources. I knew oppression existed — I witnessed the sexism, racism and classism in my community — but I didn’t have the context. The Encampment gave me language that I could use to talk with the adults and peers in my life starting then.

How has the Encampment influenced your life? In a way, it gave me a head start in terms of the conversations we are having today about racism and classism. I’m in the field of change-making and started a community nonprofit developed through community organizing. I had the language a lot earlier than a lot of my peers did, so I was able to build relationships within the movement in an important way across class and race.

I remember we struggled with homophobia. We had at least one person who was out as gay and I remember a lot of us struggled with that. By the time I came out as an LGBTQ, about five years after the Encampment, it was hard to remember my own confusion.

In the past five years, I have helped to found and acted as executive director of Portland’s TischPDX. Our mission is to bolster leadership in young and marginalized Jews. Tisch means “table” and we meet at a table, a traditional practice in Judaism — to meet on a Saturday afternoon, a Shabbat afternoon, to learn and to study together. We’ve reclaimed that idea. We‘re primarily Queer, Jews of Color or Jews raised outside of Judaism and we meet once a month around a table and we study Jewish texts, but we also learn like I did at the Encampment. We share our experiences and talk about systemic oppression, ability and disability, and gender justice. We talk about racism in the Jewish community and outside the Jewish community, and we have hard conversations.

We also provide a lot of resources and support, including stipends for participation. It’s for a different age group; we work with 23- to 45-year-olds. We provide direct mentoring and coaching for skills-building in program development and facilitation. This program is for younger Jews who have decided they want to be leaders, despite marginalization, and who want to build Jewish community, so we support them in a number of ways.

What‘s nice about this project is it’s very close to my heart. It’s what I would have benefited greatly from if this program had been available to me when I was 23 or 25 or 28 or 30. It’s great to be able to provide something that I can tell is useful — and there’s a strong social justice and equity lens.

Ultimately, I’m in the field that I’m in in large part because of my experience at the Encampment. Being part of that summer left me feeling empowered. I felt like I could do something about racism and sexism. That experience helped me understand that whatever I had to offer was important and that it mattered what I thought, and what I felt and did. It encouraged me to keep going then and I’m still in this field of community organizing and change-making because of it.

What is your favorite memory or story from the Encampment? I have two. The first was meeting my bunkmate Vernetta Perkins. I was humbled that I got to share a bunk with someone whose parents marched in Alabama, and I felt lucky and so eager to hear her story.

The second is that a topic would be introduced each week, like racism. A context and overview were given and then [the leaders] would say, “Okay, now we’re going to talk about it.” It would maybe be an evening, we would stop for dinner, but we would come back after dinner, and we would talk sometimes until midnight — laughing, crying, fighting, working it out; all 50 of us held in that space. I haven’t had that experience since then.

What motivated you to go to the Encampment? My auntie found an ad for the EFC in a mailer and cut it out and sent it to me. I liked what it said about social justice and was inspired to go. The biggest roadblock was raising the money; I think it was $2,000 then. I asked friends and family to help me go. I had to persuade some people. Some people weren’t really for it, but I figured it out, I got there.

 What topic did you spend the most time on at the Encampment and what did you learn? The topic that I remember the most is racism. It kept overwhelming the other topics. It just kept re-surfacing. We tried talking about sexism. I think because racism really has the largest impact right now in a local and global sense, and it was true back then. The damage done by racism is severe. Maybe it’s that sexism doesn’t get looked at enough either, so this is an ongoing question for me.

I don’t know how much we talked about slavery or reparations like we are now. One thing I really appreciated, in retrospect, is that there were White people there willing to learn and People of Color willing to educate. My sense is that, because we were younger, there was a real willingness to learn that I don’t always see in adults. It was a willingness to hear and to learn and to work for change. It helped me become grounded and think of myself as an anti-racist (although I’m not sure that word was used then). The People of Color were willing to say, “Well, the world looks different through my eyes, and this is how it looks,” and I was willing to hear and not feel defensive. I do remember feeling defensive sometimes, but there was a lot of room for both — to talk and to listen; at least that was my experience.

And that’s the work. In 2013, I helped found a Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter in Portland. It’s an organization that helps educate and train White people to understand their role in racism and how to take action. One of the ways that you work on becoming an ally or accomplice is that you have to be able to listen to people’s stories and not be defensive, and learn and take feedback. We were doing that at the Encampment. What I’m realizing now is that so many campers and staff who were being impacted by systemic oppressions were amazing educators — they were willing to tell the rest of us what their lives were like and what they were experiencing.

How did Encamper self-government work for your Encampment? I forgot that you all asked us to create our own government, but what I remember is that we did have some autonomy, which was unlike any space I had ever been in as a young person. That was a big deal for a 16-year-old when your experiences are living in your family with your parents or being in school. My big memory is that it was kind of a mess, but we really were in charge. It was a great experiment!

How did the Encampers get along? It’s interesting because, as I talk to more Encampers now and we reflect back on that experience, I understand that my experience was different from others’. My experience was one of being fairly accepted. It was probably my White privilege — I might not have known that at the time, but it felt pretty easy for people to like me, for the most part, and I liked people. I remember fights happening in these big group circles, and I remember somebody had to leave because there was some trouble. She actually got kicked out and that created strife for some people who were close to her, but that was more a disagreement with the staff, I think, than with each other. I remember people fighting, but that there was space to do it in a way that I felt safe still, which was very interesting because that hadn’t been my experience. To me, fighting was bad, but I remember that the staff created a place where conflict was OK. We could be angry and share our feelings, and it was a safe space to do that, and then we would go out and play together. It was great — we could go have lunch together and everything was fine, or we could go run around the headlands together. We worked it out in those spaces. I remember a lot of conflict, but in a contained way. And that connection deepened from week to week. I’m still in touch with many of them. A secure connection was established.

What were some of your favorite leisure-time activities? I remember the beautiful sunsets at Point Bonita. Hiking outside was wonderful and I loved the art classes!

Why is the EFC important now? I still don’t see a lot of programs that offer the dialogue and cross-cultural and cross-class connections. I talk about the Encampment at least once a week — it’s part of my story that I tell people. There were people from different geographies, different classes, different races; people from urban and rural populations. The EFC created a space where there was such a diversity of experiences and strong facilitation that we were able to have incredible conversations.

The other thing I noticed about the Encampment was the Participatory Action Research model, developed at UC Berkeley, that was used. [Encampers do self-directed research on issues important to them, supported by guest speakers, field experiences and staff facilitators.]

There were 50 of us and maybe six or eight staff in their 20s to 30s. Those counselors saw their role to hold a container for us. It meant that we were in charge of the space. We had to decide what we would do with it and that’s still pretty revolutionary!