This past summer, Alexis Newsome began the transition of becoming Sherwood Forest’s first ever camp director of color. We celebrate this long overdue event within our leadership and are looking forward to Alexis leading camp this summer. No stranger to Sherwood, she has been closely connected since childhood and brings a wealth of experience with her. As a second generation camp alum, former board member, and current camper parent, Alexis is uniquely poised to connect with the Sherwood Forest Community. Alexis shares below about this monumental time in our history and discusses efforts going forward to continue fostering a community of equity and inclusion at camp.
Alexis on how it feels to be the first camp director of color at Sherwood Forest:
I honestly do feel so honored and thankful and really grateful to be in this position. Because when I think about representation, I’m looking at it as a parent, as a woman, and a person of color. I think about how that representation can help to lead an organization where the majority of our campers identify as a person of color.
When I think of my own camper, my own daughter, I think about how I want her to always be able to look around in this space that she knows is safe and comfortable and see someone that looks like her. That she identifies with something, then can say “this is attainable for me”. In that moment, she knows this is not something that I should not look past and this is an option for me. And I mean this in terms of leadership, working and being in the camping/outdoors field. There is a false notion that people of color (POCs) do not have an affinity for nature, camping and just being outside. And for some POCs it has unfortunately been part of black culture to not enjoy being in nature. I want our campers to look around and see a familiar identity in leadership who also has a passion for the great outdoors. I want them to see the shattering of a glass ceiling and think “this person that looks like me has a seat at the table and is making decisions, so that’s possible for me.” That’s what I think about as an alum growing up through Sherwood. I always thought, you know, we are primarily a black space, just because that is just how it breaks down with the folks that we serve, and I always have thought that we really do need to have some people around that can really see eye to eye with them, from their perspective.
On the encouragement she received from peers to pursue this role:
When this job came available, one of my friends from camp who has a biracial child at camp said “Alexis, you have to take this job because out of 84 years I really think that it is the biggest hypocrisy to not have a camp director of color when we have all of these children of color.”
I was like “wow” – no one had put it quite that way to me. It’s absolutely true and not that our other camp directors can’t see eye to eye, but it does affect the perspective piece.
One of the coolest things our previous camp director, Rachel, said to me when I was talking to her about this job was “I really hope to be the last non person of color in this role for this organization. That’s how strongly we as an organization need to feel about this.”
It really is time to put our money where our mouth is for our campers. It really resonated with me that our campers need to see what is possible.
On upcoming changes and efforts at camp:
There will be some things that our campers will notice changing in our programs. Some are small things, like supplies and materials. At the health lodge, for example, we’re thinking specifically about the importance of providing Band-Aids in all different skin tones. This may seem small for some, but it’s huge for others. When you look at a box that says like “skin tone Band-Aid” and then you see, well, this isn’t my skin tone – that experience can make one automatically feel excluded, even though it’s just a Band-Aid. We also need to make sure that we have different types of sunscreen for those that are different shades of melanin. Those are things that we are starting to do, and we have some great friends of Sherwood Forest that supplied those for us.
In terms of our summer team, we have staff join us from all over the world, about 19 countries! So we are thinking about what are some activities or cool educational things from all these cultures that we can bring to camp. That really starts to show all of our kids what acceptance looks like on all levels. For example, we have the “Journey Around the World” event where all of our staff from different countries will put on different activities and make food from their country. Kids rotate through the various stations to experience all these cultures and it is the coolest thing. We’re also starting to hang the flags of all of the countries where our staff are from or their families are from and that has been a really cool thing to introduce.
We will continue to make a concerted effort to reach out in different ways so to ensure we have a diverse summer staff team from various places and with varied identities. First and foremost, we want to hire individuals that are committed to our mission and committed to our vision, which by default brings all different types of people to camp. We look for people that are committed to moving forward in a progressive way in talking about racial equality and racial justice. It’s also hugely important that we continue to partner with organizations and educational institutions that are aligned with our mission.
On intentionality in programs to promote Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion:
We are more carefully considering what barriers some of our kids may be coming in with and then how can we start, in a respectful and safe way, to break those down. To ease our kids into certain things. We do start with a lot of mindfulness, social-emotional (SEL) learning, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) education. This can be subtle enough that campers don’t immediately realize we’re doing it at first. In the first five days we have one program that’s called “People to People” in which we talk about all kinds of things. This is new and just started in 2021. What do you identify as? How does that make you feel? What are the commonalities that tie us together? What does this particular scenario make you feel like? We do have them do some teamwork and collaborative activities, like DE&I and SEL work, in those first few days to really build that foundation as a cabin group.
While it has always been the case that campers do collaborative activities the first couple days, it has not always been the case that we intentionally talk about different races, backgrounds, religions, different identities and pronouns. What are the different identities that you cannot see that still make up a person? That is a very important concept and that is new and intentional. It’s really been the past year that we started laying that groundwork.
Alexis on the importance of feedback and putting campers first:
The changes being made are, for the most part, rooted in experience. The beauty of Sherwood Forest is that we’ve had people of color work here for, you know, 84 years almost. So we’ve been able to reach out to past and current staff to ask them what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and what gaps we could address.
In reaching out to campers and families, the feedback they provide is vital. I really want to understand what our areas of growth are and what we do really well. I’m reaching out to a lot of different people and then I am pulling from my own experience as a woman, as a mom, as a camp parent, and as a person of color. I really hope to be that voice in the room for those that may not be in the room at the time.
Of course, part of this process is also knowing that I don’t have all the answers and even the people around me don’t have all the answers. It’s really coming to an understanding that, yes, I’m going to fall short at times. That’s just part of this process. But what is important is how I pick back up and model what I want for our campers moving forward.
Our longtime friends and even new friends may notice some new language we utilize and may feel a shift as we work toward moving forward progressively. It can feel like a big change and we want our community to know we do care about their voice, but we have a greater obligation to our campers. As a youth development agency, we have to do what’s best for campers and their families. I would love for our friends to know that we are trying to move forward in a healthy, honest way and to get away from some of the things in our past that, although not intentional, may not have been in the best interest of our campers.