This summer, Aaron Richardson, 2014-15 Encamper and 2016 intern, is joining our Alum Outreach Committee. His mandate is to reach out to recent alums, find out what they are up to in their busy lives, and encourage them (and older alums) to join us for the InterGen program on July 22. He will also help us develop a Tik Tok presence to reach younger alums and other ways to enhance the EFC’s social media reach. As part of that effort, we ask everyone to follow and “Like” the EFC’s posts on channels listed at the end of this post.
We asked Aaron to look back, now that he is nine years past his first Encampment, and share his thoughts about what was most important to him and what has stayed with him. (Aaron and his mother Beth Ward did an interview in 2015 with Anika Nailah after his first Encampment; the link for that is at the end of the post.) Aaron joined the most recent InterGen Café as a speaker. He explained how he created a musical album as his final project in Politics and Education and shared his song “Krysis.” Click here to hear audio. You can also find it on Spotify (Under Ways to Contact Aaron.)
Looking back, nine years since your first Encampment, what stands out the most about what you learned at the Encampment?
It was a shift in energy between how I carried myself in social justice situations before and after my time at the Encampment. We could talk about specifics, like undocumented people or politics in Mississippi or Chicago … While those things are helpful — the statistics to carry with you, the most important impact the Encampment gave me was checking my ego when it comes to social justice work. Really learning how to absorb the information from different types of people. I’m a very strong-willed person who doesn’t step down from political matters and speaking my mind. Both at the Encampment and in my everyday interpersonal relationships, the Encampment has taught me how to carry myself —how to be able to listen to people who don’t have the same ideas as me. How to sit with difference, sit in uncomfortability.
I think it’s super-strong, too, because nowadays, there’s a huge push to be different, a trauma-informed way of approaching politics, especially when it comes to left-leaning spaces. It can become toxic quickly and the idea of pushing you to be uncomfortable can be controversial itself. Nowadays, there are the extremes of safe spaces and spaces with just rhetoric. I think the Encampment was at a perfect time where we had none of that and we talked about the importance of being present with each other and aware, and being uncomfortable for the sake of growth. It didn’t feel like a gimmick or buzzwords. It was a genuine approach to politics. … It made my process more intuitive … by putting down a phone for a month, putting down a computer for a month unless it was to make a slide show about what we were learning. That really taught me how to be much more in tune with what I wanted to do. It helped me grow and it carried outside to my personal relationships …It also helped me realize how much I need to be aware of other people. It’s made me more of a force. Click for video of Aaron talking about the EFC approach.
Why is the EFC important now?
In terms of my life, because I’m almost 10 years out of my first Encampment, it pulls me to look at what I should be doing with the Encampment, as well as knowing that the Encampment is still necessary. I was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture last weekend with my mom and there was a James Baldwin quote that we are living history, we are always an agent of history [see end of interview for verbatim quote].
I carry that with me very deeply and the Encampment pushed me to do that as well — to not be a bystander. You can think about it terms of politics—policies—but also it stands for the people in your life. The Encampment made me think that if I have friends who are international or across the country, then I need to put the effort in to maintain relationships with them. In terms of the Encampment, it means that my involvement is important — giving what time I can. Right now, I have some more time that I can put in. The Encampment holds up a mirror. Talk is one thing, but let’s put our hands and feet and thoughts together. I’m reinvesting in the ways I can. I’ll be reaching out to my fellow alums from all years to join me in supporting the EFC by sharing your stories and inviting you to the InterGen on July 22.
…[The Encampment] is [one of] the last forms of genuine human connection in a camp setting [focused on social justice] where you spend more than an hour on a conversation. The Encampment is not self-righteous. You are not posting infographics, trying to raise money. The Encampment is an investment in yourself. It’s going against the [short attention span] trend of the world. It’s having people come together to discuss politics that doesn’t feed into the larger cultural narrative, which has been polarized but is also now hijacked by social media. The Encampment is a movement that is grassroots and defined by the time that you can commit to it and also by not being fueled or motivated by social media.
Now that you’ve been away for so long, what is your favorite memory or story from the Encampment? What stays with you?
Wow, there are so many different incidents that I remember, but honestly, it was just being present with people in Chicago. At the end of each day, we had two hours of free time and that time with us all being together doing whatever we decided to do — that was the best time. I was with people I hadn’t met before and it was a nice time to get to know them outside of the program activities — playing piano or singing songs with the Encampers and Jane Sapp. Or seeing lightning outside the dorm windows. I got cathartic about the social justice conversations we had in our circles … In our free time, it wasn’t like we were on our phones and separated. We continued these conversations, staying up late — sometimes too late! I remember having an argument all night with someone from Mississippi. He was being homophobic and didn’t believe I would stand up as much as I did. It’s enlightening and it does create that community bonding. It really feels like we’re in this together now. It’s a mental healer to have those connections.
What topic did you spend the most time on at the Encampment and what did you learn?
The main theme is listening and being in touch with the group. The Encampment didn’t force you to be present. If you didn’t choose to be present, you could sit there for hours and not be present, but you wouldn’t want to … you would really want to be involved.
In terms of topics, being in Mississippi and Alabama had a real impact — going to the Emmett Till Museum and going to someone’s house — friends of the Encampment who cooked for us. I remember the bus broke down and we had conversations about the struggles of Black men and women in the South in that community.
The way that the Encampment brings out character or true colors, on top of the what we were learning about Emmett Till and the lack of funding for the museum, so the mayor is keeping it up — that was so important. We went to an African American museum in Selma [http://nvrmi.com/]. We were across from the Edmund Pettus Bridge and arguing with organizers of Black Lives Matter about things they believed versus things we believed. That was my first time near that bridge. There was so much history being absorbed while you are doing this character-building. Those two things happening at the same time … the character-building thing can happen with those kinds of conversations with your friends if you are blessed enough to have friends who will engage in those conversations with you — but to have that along with actively learning history is monumental … it’s like you are moving tectonic plates!
How did Encamper self-government work for your Encampment?
When I first heard about self-government, I remember saying to my mom, “I don’t know what this would be like, coming up with a form of government when we’re just together for three weeks.” I didn’t think the Encampment would give it to us as much as you all did. I thought you would let us brainstorm a bit, but at the end of the day, you would have a plan in place for us. That was reassuring because the thought of creating our own government seemed overwhelming.
But it worked — we had people checking each other on the rules we created. People really tried to stick to the rules. We assigned different people to have different tasks within (and outside) a circle in terms of accountability. We were forced to come up with that ourselves if we wanted to sustain it — both people were highly invested in it and people who were sick of it. I’m pretty sure it worked.
What field trips do you remember?
I remember meeting Barbara Ransby and Father Pfleger and going to a community center and meeting community leaders like Timuel Black and Susan Powers. [They were hosted by EFC alums Glorianne Jackson and Joan and Charles Staples at their community center.] All these things impacted absorbing the history and also the message about the need to be there. You can’t just read about these different causes, like undocumented immigrants who had made a slide show that they had presented to the president [see 2015 interview] … Being present every day was important for us to capture what needed to be done.
What community service projects do you remember?
We went to a homeless shelter and it was interesting to see how people were displaced and the efforts of different social workers who came together to help them.
How did the Encampers get along? How did this change over the time you were together?
It was different every year. There was always drama with a bunch of teenagers together for a month, but it wasn’t a ton. The Encampment pushed us to face ourselves — to get together, which most communities do anyway. To have such drastic types of experiences pushed us to look inward before we spoke, before we interacted with people. It was a time before people would claim “cancel culture” and you can’t say anything. In the Encampment, where we were literally talking about politics — there wasn’t any of that rhetoric. That rhetoric didn’t exist at the time and I don’t think we would have tolerated that. If you had problematic things to say, then you said them and about five or six people were jumping down your throat…. The coolest thing was we didn’t play victimhood. I think that was the best thing about the relationships. There was no “I’m an idiot so I’m going to stop talking.” It was, “No, talk. Yeah, you say some things you shouldn’t say. Yeah, you get some flak and it should be like that, because that’s how we have conversations.” … Every year, after some time, after some real growth, we got along. Click for a video of Aaron talking about how Encampers got along.
Anything we didn’t ask that you want to say?
The Encampment really teaches about investment. I’m grateful I experienced it when I did and I’m grateful it’s had such an impact on me until this day. It placed the responsibility on me to believe in my voice. I don’t think enough places do that for young people — and in the way the Encampment does with so much of a political emphasis. The Encampment molded how I carry myself now. Click for a video of Aaron talking about investment and voice.
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, we are unconsciously controlled by it . ..history is literally present in all that we do.” — James Baldwin
For a look at Aaron’s impressions right after the Encampment, click here.
*Cancel culture links:
Ways to contact Aaron
Spotify page: Aaron R | Spotify
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