“Crip Camp,” the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Winning documentary, recounts how a summer camp designed for people with disabilities led to a revolution in the 1970s. I was moved by the passion and persistence of the real-life activists featured in the film and saw so much relevance to today’s work of fighting to end structural racism and also re-imagining education.
Here are my top three takeaways.
Takeaway #1: When they say; “It costs too much,” We say; “We are worth it.”
Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, disability rights activists fought to have public services funded by taxpayer dollars accessible to all; this included the installation of ramps for wheelchair-bound individuals, large enough public bathrooms with handles, and sign language translation for public meetings, to name a few. They made these clear and reasonable requests, yet time and time again they were told, “Sorry, that’s way too expensive!”
Sound familiar? It’s the same response activists for racial equity are given every time we bring up reparations; “It is not realistic, too expensive, where will it end?” But the disability rights activists did not take no for an answer.
Judy Heumann, one of the lead organizers, encouraged activists with disabilities to recognize their own personal worth despite those in power dismissing them.
“I wanna see a feisty group of disabled people around the world…if you don’t respect yourself and if you don’t demand what you believe in for yourself, you’re not gonna get it,” she said.
They were feisty alright, and tireless. One of the many moving scenes from the film documents the 504 sit-in of 1977, which was the longest non-violent take over of a federal building in United States history. Protestors from various socio-economic backgrounds who were deaf, blind, using wheelchairs – came with medical supplies and food and stayed in the Federal Building in San Francisco overnight for 26 days. This multi-week protest paved the way to what we know today as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Takeaway #2: Don’t go at it alone. Stand up for interconnected struggles.
When you have a physical disability, spending 26 days sleeping on a linoleum floor of a government building is no small task. For many of the sit-in participants, who normally required assistance to turn over in the night, their bodies took on a toll that lasted the rest of their lives.
The bravery and commitment of the protestors should be celebrated, but they couldn’t have done it alone. As a native of the Bay Area, I loved learning about how Oakland’s Black Panther Party cooked and brought wholesome hot meals – meatloaf, fried chicken, rolls and salad, across the bay, every single day of the protest.
This expression of solidarity is important for all of us to remember today as we are struggling with the overlapping crises of racial and economic injustice, challenges to women’s autonomy, police brutality of unarmed Black men and women, and climate change — we must remember that all these issues are interconnected.
A disability rights protestor recounts in the film, when she asked why the Panthers – with so little funding themselves – would show up for them. The Panthers responded; “You’re trying to make the world a better place. And that’s what we’re all about too.”
Takeaway #3: Radical summer camp shows us how to respond to our challenge of reimaging school in the age of COVID-19.
Crip Camp spoke to me personally. I too can trace my roots as a change maker back to summer camp.
The documentary chronicles the time that activists spent during their youth at Camp Jened; “Camp Jened was a place for teens with all kinds of disabilities […] to spend time together and experience what it might be like to live in a world that was welcoming to them.”
Together they began to voice what was not right with the world, to feel more connected with one another and less alone in this experience, and to reinforce their collective power.
I often wondered as a teenager, why couldn’t school be more like camp? I went to a camp with a vision that if youth from different racial and economic backgrounds could come together in neutral ground, live and have fun together outside their segregated routines, that perhaps prejudice could be eradicated. Camp was where I learned how to listen and appreciate different life experiences, how to make decisions based on consensus – rather than by wielding power, and how to resolve conflicts through attending to underlying needs, and to believe that change was possible, because I saw it and experienced it firsthand. This was true of Camp Jened as well.
As the pandemic, climate change, and the multiple social movements such as Black Lives Matter gaining ground surge, many of us are faced with how unworkable or unjust our public institutions are, education included. Why not look to summer camp for a model of inspiration? If summer camp can spur a revolution, well, we sure could use more of that!
When I look at my own children staring idly at their screens, with teachers often struggling to engage large groups of youth online, I reflect on how impactful and powerful it would be for them to learn in an immersive and inclusive environment like Camp Jened — particularly in our current social climate. I imagine safely convening small groups of our children — from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds — together outside, where it’s safer from the virus, witha group of counselors who reflect their life experiences, and are steeped in the principles of community and critical thinking. Just think about what might happen, what possible paths towards equality might be paved!
It is possible that they could change the world.