All my life, I’ve followed a path typical of the middle-class suburb where I grew up. I never had to worry about whether or not there would be dinner on the table. I lived in a neighborhood where I could safely play outside with my younger sisters. I completed all grade levels from preschool to high school and I continued on to a four-year university. Like many other Americans in my position, I never understood the extent of my privilege —the safety, the opportunity, the education— until one day I did.
“This is the best vacation I’ve ever had!” one of my campers exclaimed, less than an hour after the bus had dropped her off. “I never want to leave.”
“At home we never get to play like this!” another said, after we’d finished rolling down the grass hill. “It’s not safe outside.”
“This is my first s’more!”
“I’ve never seen the stars before.”
“Have you ever heard of the Bloods and the Crips?”
As a counselor at Camp Ubuntu, I’ve had the opportunity to serve at-risk and underserved children from inner-city Los Angeles. At camp, they escape the violence and hardships that characterize their daily lives. Meanwhile, my eyes have been opened to the challenges many communities across America face in terms of providing children adequate opportunities for education, growth and empowerment.
Although camp is a safe haven in the form of a three-day retreat sponsored by the Harold Robinson Foundation, the stories the campers tell me about their lives at home bring me to tears when I reflect on the weekend during the drive back to Santa Barbara. At such young ages, they have already experienced violence and marginalization to a degree which I cannot even begin to fully comprehend yet they are still able to arrive at camp filled with excitement and wonder. What their circumstances have stolen from them Camp Ubuntu can return. The greatest joy I have experienced in life is being able to be a part of so many of their firsts that I took for granted growing up. Seeing the stars for the first time. Eating s’mores. Using their voices — and finally being heard.
These children deserve more. America needs to do better.
Too often, the circumstances of children’s births determine the opportunities they’ll have in life. Children who grow up in historically marginalized and oppressed communities lack access to the resources they need to thrive. From the day they are born, society sets these children on a path filled with obstacles: poverty, hunger, discrimination, violence and school systems unable to provide them with the education they need.
These kids have big dreams — I’ve met prospective space engineers, veterinarians and scientists — but without the resources to excel in school and a framework of support at home, many believe these dreams are too far out of reach.
Being raised in an environment where education and opportunity are so easily accessible, and even taken for granted, I’ve realized how my ignorance has affected my perception of society. Although I continue to broaden my understanding of the social problems of racism and classism, I’ve also noticed how so many fail to notice or acknowledge the injustice at all. As long as America remains ignorant of the realities many children in the country experience, its people will remain apathetic.
My eyes have been opened to the challenges many communities across America face in terms of providing children adequate opportunities for education, growth and empowerment.
Before I started working at Camp Ubuntu, my hopes for kids that I had worked with in the past were simple: that they would get good grades in school and be good to their parents. Following my first retreat, I now worry that my campers will join a gang. I worry that they’ll get shot. I hope they take home the spirit of “Ubuntu” back to their communities and one day the cycle of violence will end.
The work of the Harold Robinson Foundation is rooted in the South African philosophy of “Ubuntu,” which translates to: “I am because we are” and can be defined as “a quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity.” Not only do these children have the opportunity to experience nature on hikes, conquer their fears on the ropes course and express their creativity through hip-hop and arts and crafts, but they also are surrounded by the essential qualities of humanity for the entire retreat.
Coming from the some of the most violent and underserved areas of Los Angeles — Watts, Compton, Inglewood — these children, like all children, are conditioned by their environments. Some kids have fathers in gangs with a running list of other gang members they’ve killed. Others have mothers recently incarcerated. Many know of friends and family who have been shot in random acts of violence.
At camp, they learn to choose peace over violence. Unity over division. Love over hate. They realize that there are alternatives to dropping out of school or joining a gang. The path to social change will not be easy, but if Camp Ubuntu can bring together the four warring housing developments in Watts for their Watts United retreat, we can continue the movement in our own communities and beyond.
I truly believe this place has the power to change your life from the moment you step onto the camp grounds, whether you’re a camper, a parent, a chaperone, a staff member or a counselor. Every retreat, I arrive ready to give all of my love and enthusiasm these kids, but I’ve found that, in turn, I gain so much from them. I’ve gained a new home, a new perspective and a new passion for social change.
Being raised in an environment where education and opportunity are so easily accessible, and even taken for granted, I’ve realized how my ignorance has affected my perception of society.
Although I know everyone has their own path to travel and not all roads will lead to Camp Ubuntu, there are still ways we can carry on the compassion and humanity of Ubuntu in our own lives and beyond. We can choose not to take the opportunities we’ve been given for granted. We can use our privilege as a tool to raise awareness in our own communities of the social injustices affecting other communities in America. We can donate to foundations, such as the Harold Robinson Foundation, working to enact social change and become involved with these foundations through community service and fundraising events. Even in our own I.V. community, we can act with more compassion to each other — lending a hand to neighbors, offering to buy the homeless man outside 7/11 a warm meal and participating in beach clean-ups.
The choice to make a change, whether on a small or large scale, is up to us. Even a small act of kindness has the power to make great waves in the ocean of change.
We can continue on our path of privilege with blinders on to the historically oppressed communities of America, or we can choose to open our eyes and address the systemic issues of racism and classism in our society.
By taking the path less travelled, we open new paths of opportunity for the oppressed.
Calista Liu wants all children to grow up with equal opportunities. To help more kids experience the community of Camp Ubuntu, you can donate here.