Colonial Ableist Space and the Production of the Camp Experience

Note (edit September 12, 2015):

The views of this blog post are mine, Bridget Liang and my experiences and love for Project Acorn. This is not representative of the organization. 

I came back from my third year attending Project Acorn and I’m still unpacking/catching up on sleep/scratching all the mosquito bites.

For those who don’t know, Project Acorn is a leadership camp design for queer and trans youth (16-24). I attend as a R.O.C. (Roots of Our Communities) which is the “adult” (25+) attendees that support youth, help facilitate/monitor workshops, and providing their knowledge and experiences to everyone.

I’m in camp withdrawal as I usually am after coming back. I feel this sense of loss over being away from all these brilliant, vibrant queers that made up the camp population. I’m fortunate enough to return back to a queer home unlike many of the youth in attendance. It is such a privilege for me to be able to continue being me when I go home and not just for a few days out in the forest.

I’m writing this piece because a couple participants had to leave after the first day. I know the one left because the space was just not physically accessible to them. And because of that, I feel like I failed.

Even though I wasn’t part of the leadership process that decided on this particular camp site, I feel like I failed this youth. There wasn’t anything I could do. The camp site was hilly, rocky, filled with wood chips, and at best precariously “accessible” with rickety ramps. From what I understood, those in leadership tried their best to assess the camp site well-before camp started, but emergencies came up that made an on-site visit impossible. It doesn’t help that the camp’s location is an hour and a half away from Ottawa where Project Acorn’s headquarters is located. When they called up the camp site manager and interviewed them about accessibility, the camp site managers’s response is that they were billed as an accessible camp site and that yes, they were accessible to all the specific questions that they were asked. The camp site owner(s) have demonstrated that they fail to understand accessibility and more likely than not, are non-disabled people.

I nicknamed the camp site, “Camp Deathtrap” because of how inaccessible it was. I don’t have any mobility issues, but it was treacherous to walk around in my femmy open-toed sandals. I tripped over rocks but was lucky enough not to sprain anything. It was tiring to walk across the camp site due to all the rocks and uneven paths. The ladder from the docks into the water was very thin and small and was difficult to use in my fat body. There were additionally no other ways to pull myself onto the docks from the water besides two tiny ladders. I lay all blame for the camp’s accessibility on the people who run the camp site. Able bodied people shouldn’t be allowed to be experts on accessibility. Ever.

When it came to food accessibility, it too wasn’t the most accessible. Although dietary restrictions were followed and there were options that were available to every dietary need, nothing was really labeled beyond, “vegan” or “gluten free”. As a vegetarian, I avoid cheese that I don’t know because rennet is an enzyme from a cow’s stomach. This makes it not-vegetarian and yet food that contained cheese was labeled as vegetarian. Most of the dishes at camp were also very White. What I mean by this is that they were food palatable to Canadians of assimilated European ancestry. Although the food nourished my body, it felt like part of my soul was dying with each bite I took. I needed to drown everything in hot sauce to make it taste vaguely like food to me. Many of the BIPOC folks I chatted with had similar comments and probably felt bothered by the food.

I was reminded during Project Acorn that the camp site is on stolen, unceded Indigenous land. It got me thinking about how the land was taken and re-shaped to fit the whims of white colonizers. From how wood chips were introduced to the paths, where paths were made, the ways/where buildings were constructed (with steps going up them), who staffed the camp sites, and the food served, it was made to serve the whims of white colonizers. Not much about the space is really “natural”. It reminds me of a fancy garden or a park. At least a park is more likely to not be a deathtrap.

I talk about food accessibility and camp geography because it was not designed with someone like me in mind. I’m tired of a system where I have to ask if something is accessible or putting up with racial microaggressions. I’m really fond of the Black Lives Matter slogan, “The system isn’t broken, it was built this way”. Even though this is not a matter of life or death, the system in which the camp experience is imagined by the (predominantly white) cultural imagination is produced in exclusion to queer/trans bodies, disabled bodies, and racialized bodies.

Since the space of the camp site is produced to exclude marginalized bodies, I don’t see how it’s possible to create a space that is more inclusive towards racialized, disabled, queer/trans bodies. As it stands, having a traditional (white) camping experience doesn’t seem compatible with including youth in the margins. There are camping spaces designed for disabled youth, but how can those spaces be decolonized from their blatant appropriation of Indigenous objects? How could we convince non-disabled people to use disabled space? How can we additionally separate disabled camp space from its histories of exploiting disabled youth/adults through infantilizing them to solicit donations from non-disabled people and to pay non-disabled NGO worker’s salaries? How do we avoid tossing disabled people under the bus (since disabled queer/trans youth rarely have space that they can access to talk about their experiences)?

I would like to put into question the idea of, “camp” and “camping experience”. I dream of a space that centers decolonization efforts, is designed with people of colour in mind, is viable for all disabled people to access, while still supports queer and trans folks. Why does the camp experience necessarily have to be about going to a camp site and engage in culturally white activities such as archery, rock climbing, and camp fires?

I grew up in a Maoist Chinese household. Although I grew up in Canada and have a white father that tried to teach me White Ways, I don’t feel any nostalgia towards camp fires and roasting marshmallows for s’mores. I don’t recall fond memories of going out into nature and getting bitten by bugs and “roughing it”. I was too poor and estranged from such experiences. I went to library “camps” and the local rec center’s programming. I recall memories of talking about the books that I read to library volunteers. I recall watching Spice World and the Goonies at the library. I recall splashing around during kid’s swimming time most evenings. I recall stir fry, dumplings, and baozi and math lessons, science projects, and story writing at home. I recall going down to “the Bay” near my home and walking the foot paths with the family or playing with kids on the tug boat playground.

I have a number of ideas for alternatives to the traditional camping experience. The space could be within the city limits so it can be easier to access and also to audit for accessibility. Any “camp” activities could be supported by local YMCA/YWCA centers that could potentially be more accessible to disabled folks.

We need to talk more about food justice and potentially BIPOC folks need to have opportunities to share their food for the rest of the camp. I was thinking of it as part of a food justice initiative workshop where folks learn how to cook for a group while conveying the diverse food backgrounds we come from. Food needs to center people’s dietary needs first and foremost but we need to acknowledge our colonized relationship with food. We also need to talk more about our relationships to space and land and how it impacts us. This means that food should first and foremost be vegan and gluten/nut free so everyone can eat and not feel slighted. This means that food reflect the diverse cultural upbringings that occupy the room.

Disabled and racialized (especially Indigenous) youth should be at the forefront of this discussion. I would like to see that the upcoming year’s leadership create paid positions for racialized/queer/trans youth with disabilities to develop strategies to make or change the camp experience to include everyone.

I believe that in order to create a space that is more accessible, we cannot throw anyone under the bus. We strive to include particularly those who do not have any access to safer, queer/trans space. Far too many queer and trans youth return to homes that are unsafe and it is integral to give them space to safely be themselves. We strive to work together to decolonize our minds and our spaces. And I believe this discussion needs to start with putting the notion of, “camp” into question and re-evaluate what it means.

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