In preparing this post, I can't but help use the first-person perspective because the impact that Camp Courage in Fresno had on me personally as a facilitator is so profound that distancing myself from it would, not only be difficult, but wrong in how I should communicate what needs to be told about the amazing change that is happening in Fresno, CA.
For the sake of time in telling this story, I first need to direct you to my Op-Ed on the first Camp Courage in LA so you can know what Camp Courage is and what it's about. This exact same model was brought to Fresno, but effectively expanded upon over the course of two days.
On Saturday morning, we facilitators anxiously waited for our pre-assigned group to arrive through the conference room doors, excited to know who we would be working with for the whole weekend. The expected 160 and more attendees were randomly divided into groups to help mix it up, and I was curious to see whom I and the rest of the facilitators would get. Many of us had either been to the energized Camp Courage in LA or had worked at several Camp Obamas, whose model Camp Courage has adopted. So we were expectant of the same amount of energy.
The attendees, many from Fresno and the large surrounding Central Valley, trickled in and quietly sat down. Immediately, we could feel that there was energy, but it was definitively different from what we experienced before. Trying to put my finger on it, I observed my amazingly diverse group - a lesbian in her 70s, a middle-aged gay man, a lesbian in her 20s, a straight woman (yeah, straight!) and a bisexual girl of just 16. Though we were talking, you couldn't miss the initial impression - "What do I have in common with these people? What have I done by coming here?" As the Camp kicked off, it hit me what the energy was - "Caution."
As I grew to learn, these residents of the Central Valley had been let down so many times before. Fresno, CA is practically the capitol of the Bible belt in California (and yes, there is a Bible belt in California), and the local LGBT population has continually and constantly experienced discrimination and hate from their own city. But worse, they have reached out to their own LGBT community in other cities, raising their voices that they needed help only to get no response. (Fresno doesn't even have a center for the LGBT population to meet at, let alone organize.) During the No on 8 Campaign, they cried out that they needed help, that they were prepared to act, only to receive a few yard signs to put out in response. And even more, they have witnessed the burgeoning movement blooming in their neighboring urban cities only to be forgotten about. Again.
No wonder they attended Camp Courage with caution. "Who are these urbanites coming to our town? Are they going to let us down again? Are they going to "train us" only to take off, yet again, to forget us?" Many probably came only to see their opinion of us, which up to this point was correct, validated.
When we opened the camp, Lisa Powell, the amazing head facilitator, asked the attendees, "Who here is uncomfortable? Who here doesn't know anyone? Who here is wondering, 'What am I doing here?'" Quite a few hands went up, and I could tell by the faces of others, they wanted to raise their hands, too. One 16 year old had been dropped off by their mom, to come to the camp all alone, not knowing anyone. A sure sign of the desperation and the need for community in the area.
One of the first exercises at Camp Courage is for each member of each group to answer one simple question about themselves. This easy exercise slowly began to break the thick layer of ice. It began to dawn of everyone that they're not just going to sit around listening to a droning speaker talk down to them - they were going to be engaged.
But what was the turning point? What melted the ice wall? The brilliant but difficult exercise, "The Story of Self." This exercise asks the camper to distill their story of how they came out, about how they overcame a challenge that put them on the path of equality, a story that is extremely personal, a story they may have never told, down to two minutes. Why? Because the Story of Self is a powerful tool in connecting with people emotionally, and to help bring them into the movement, to connect even with those who oppose us.
I heard stories about the mistreatment from hospitals keeping partners apart while facing fatal circumstances, about children not relating to their gay parent, about a teenager rising above her difficulties at her school, about a straight woman raised in a religious environment who came to realize that her stance in support of the LGBT community could cost her, about a woman and her partner who can't get full coverage for their daughter 's disability. I heard more stories about a trans woman who went to school and had to wet her pants everyday until she was allowed to use the woman's restroom, how others were spit in the face by their fellow Fresno residents simply for being who they were, and so much more.
As I was sitting there, listening to these stories, not being able to keep the tears from welling - it hit me. I'm not here to facilitate. I'm here to learn. I'm hear to listen. I'm here to show these amazing people that they are not alone. They have truly been on the front lines, the real soldiers, facing hate in a town in which the residents are not ashamed to show it, actually proud of it, literally spitting it in their faces. I live in the cush bubble of LA where, if someone does hate me, they're not about to fling it in my face.
I knew so little. But I walked away knowing so much more. And not just that, I left with a greater sense of community way beyond the Los Angeles city limits.
After these brave campers told their stories not just to their groups, but to the whole convention, the ice melted. These people, many of whom didn't know each other until this day, exposed their hearts and realized that they were not alone. They had a community that had shared experiences, not only from far away cities, but within their own neighborhoods. This was the turning point. The energy transformed from "caution" to "trust" and "community."
Over the course of two days, with campers driving miles and miles to return, with speakers like Cleve Jones and Dolores Huerta of the union movement to add to the inspiration, with the Story of Us bringing everyone even closer together, with solid friendships between people who were recently strangers developing, with commitments to change and action being made, the sense of community building was tangible.
The recurring them of Camp Courage Fresno was, "I thought I was alone. Now I know I'm one of many, and I never have to feel that way again."
But here's the amazing thing about Fresno.
They're not alone simply because we urbanites came along and said sincerely, "We'll never make the mistake of not listening again." The truth is, these amazing people are not alone because they have each other. They have strength from each other. They're planning outstanding events and actions (which I will talk about over and over and over in many posts to come - hello MeetintheMiddle4Equalty.org!!!). They have built their community. And the movement is headed their direction!
And if there's one thing I can take away from this experience this past weekend, it's the sense that I too am a part of a greater community that's driving an even greater movement. It's not just an LGBT community, it's not just an LGBT movement. It's a community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, intersexuals, queers, straights, union workers, African Americans, Latinos, Asian and everyone in between.
It's a movement of change.
And I have Fresno, CA to thank for that.
Thank you, Marta Evry, for these amazing pictures!