Aurelia Brazeal speaking at the Encampment for Citizenship’s 70th Anniversary.

How has the Encampment influenced your life?

My EFC experience set me on the path to become a career U.S. diplomat and ultimately a three-time Senate-approved U.S. Ambassador. This early exposure to experiential learning approaches underscored the importance of democracy, of cultural competence and of building bridges.

What did you learn at the Encampment?

In 1963, at my Encampment in Puerto Rico, as a young African-American, I did not believe I could say to my fellow Encampers, “as a future leader of my country, I am here to tell you …” When the young Latin American Encampers actually made such statements, I became intrigued. What gave them their confidence? What cultural differences made them so brave? Could I, an African American and a woman, expect to be a leader of my country? These, and many more questions, focused my attention on the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy — a primary objective of the 1963 Encampment.

Your Encampment was in a rural camp in Puerto Rico — can you tell us more about that?

I remember the rustic camp buildings and the critters, including mice, in the camp buildings. There was a swimming hole in the rainforest where some of us went swimming. Driving up/down the “mountain” road to the camp and visiting the beach. I also recall the sessions where we tried to hammer out an system of governing ourselves, which we never achieved because of the differing American and Latin American parliamentarian systems and cultures.

Why is the Encampment important now?

Now, we need the Encampment more than ever. Is it as dismaying to you as it is to me that the very issues we all worked on decades ago are still at the forefront of our nation’s challenges? In these perilous times, there is a need to pass along to young people some of the very precious lessons I learned in the Encampment. In a globalized world, we cannot demonize the “other”; to do so challenges our sense of humanity. We have to be bridge builders. The EFC is a living experiment in participatory democracy with a lifelong impact. Just one aspect is that young people can see that their informed and compassionate activism can make a difference.

Today, I can think of no single program that is more important in shaping the next generation of activists we so desperately need than the Encampment. Encampers will provide the agency to find new and creative solutions to our nation’s challenges. The Encampment gives youth both hope and skills to work toward their vision of a better world for us all.

Note: Aurelia Erskine Brazeal is a retired American diplomat who served as United States Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia, United States Ambassador to Kenya and United States Ambassador to Ethiopia.