Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Chicago's Summer of '66 & The 'Secret' of Summer Camp

King addresses 30,000 in Chicago, July 1966
Earlier today I listened to an interesting NPR segment on All Things Considered on the 50th anniversary of the start of the Chicago Freedom Movement, a series of non-violent marches and protest actions led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Al Raby and other civil rights leaders to bring national attention to housing discrimination, lack of social services and deplorable living conditions.

The segment, by Cheryl Corley, runs about seven minutes if you didn't get a chance to hear it.

As Corley observed, the Chicago Freedom Movement and the nationwide unrest that followed King's assassination were instrumental in Congress eventually passing the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

From a political standpoint, particularly the 2016 presidential race, the timing of the anniversary of the start of the push to dismantle systematic housing segregation based on race in Chicago is made even more relevant to issues impacting the American landscape in the 21st century.

The pushback against federal laws against housing segregation were illustrated by the troubling details revealed in Jonathan Mahler and Steve Eder's Saturday New York Times, article, 'No Vacancies' For Blacks: How Donald Trump Got His Start And Was First Accused of Bias, an exhaustive analysis of the policy of intentional racial discrimination practiced by Fred C. Trump and his son Donald during the early 1970's when the Republican front-runner was serving as president of his father's New York real estate management company.

The structural inequities in American institutions and industries based on race, ethnicity and nationality are so much a part of the national dialog and mainstream media coverage these days.

Oprah & Ava DuVernay on the current THR cover
Over the past couple years few industries have been brought into the spotlight for massive disparities in hiring and employment opportunities based on race and gender in the way that film and television have.

The topic of race all but dominated the 2016 Oscars as the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite became a pervasive global meme and an embarrassing bruise on the face of the American film industry.

To be fair, in the wake of this year's Academy Awards, a number of executives from the studio, production, casting, union and agency side of the industry have undertaken or committed to efforts to bring more racial and gender diversity to Hollywood.

I think The Hollywood Reporter deserves a measure of credit for making that discussion a regular part of it's reporting on, and analysis of, the professional side of the industry it serves.

For example, the cover of the August 26th issue of THR features Oprah Winfrey and Selma director Ava Duvernay, an alternative cover photo by Miller Mobley featured on the cover story's title page is pictured above.

Principal cast members of Queen Sugar 
In the same issue in which Winfrey and DuVernay discuss inclusion in Hollywood and Queen Sugar, Winfrey's latest television project for her OWN cable channel, there's also an interesting piece by Carson Griffith.

An article that offers insight into why it's such a challenge for people of color and people of modest means of all ethnicities to break into the notoriously closed country-clubby ranks of Hollywood.

A place where too often, one's choice of college, drama program, agency representation and (very often) pedigree and parental lineage, often function as the gateway towards the critical and exclusive kinds of social networking opportunities that unlock the door to working in the industry.

As the opening of Griffith's article titled "The East Coast Camps That Shaped Hollywood" observes:

"Here's a little secret Ivy League schools don't want you to know, lest the influence of their alumni networks be diminished: In Hollywood, it's not just who you know, it's where you went to summer camp."

Click the link directly above and check it out, the article is a quick read at only two pages but it reveals a list of some of the exclusive summer camps, many but not all of them Jewish camps that stress a religious curriculum for the attendees, located in rural parts of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Wisconsin, Ontario, Massachusetts and New York state.

Girls start the day at Camp Kenwood
The alumni who attended these camps as kids reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood and the entertainment industry: SNL producer Lorne Michaels, CNN head Jeff Zucker, Bob Dylan, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Cohen, Ben Affleck, 60 Minutes icon Mike Wallace, CNN host Wolf Blitzer, Bradley Cooper, Neil Simon, Lena Dunham and Robert Downey, Jr. to name just a few.

These camps can cost anywhere from $5,000 for a three-week session at French Woods in the Catskills where David Blaine and Zoey Deschanel attended.

Or up to between $8,000 to $13,000 for a seven-week session at a place like Camp Modin in Maine, or Camp Kenwood in New Hampshire.

Obviously no one is going to fault any parent for having the means to send their kids to places like these during the summer months, and not every kid who attends is destined for stardom, success or a c-level corner office.

But the fact that some well-known Los Angeles and New York-based casting agents attend some of these camps to scout young acting or directing talent, or that many parents utilize these kinds of camps as important networking opportunities, or that some camp directors actually visit potential attendee's homes the fall before summer camp as part of the evaluation / application process reflects the inherent exclusivity of Hollywood.

235-acre Camp Towanda in the Poconos, PA
Let's be honest, there are a lot of kids of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds whose parents don't have $5,000 to $13,000 to send their kid to one of these camps to take advantage of first class facilities and top-of-the-line professional instructors and teachers - kids who might have the raw talent and willingness to put in the work to be successful in the arts, music, science or business.

As Oprah observed of inclusion during the THR interview, and which I believe applies to all people regardless of age, gender, race or ethnicity:

"When Sidney Poitier came to my school [in South Africa], he gave a gift of 550 movies to the girls. He thought if you watch these 550 movies, they'll be your education for life. He wrote to the girls that his dream for them was to be able to sit at the table of the future where the world's decisions would be made. I realize now that what he was saying is to be included, to be valued as a person who has something to contribute."

My sense is that when Hollywood finds ways to help provide real opportunities of worth, value and challenge to young kids who dream of tapping into and developing their own creative or professional potential but who don't come from households of means or privilege, that's where the real work of making inclusion a part of the foundation of the industry will begin.

Maybe not every kid in America will get to sit at the table Sidney Poitier spoke of, but at the least they deserve the opportunity to be shown the way to get to the room where the table is.

In this country we spend a lot of time shaking our heads at skyrocketing rates of opioid abuse, gun violence, obesity and plummeting test scores in some public school systems.

When you look at the comparisons of what states spend on education versus incarceration, doesn't it make sense to find ways to make sure that all elementary thru middle school students in America have at least some kind of meaningful summer time camp experience?

Considering that some states like New York spend up to $60,000 a year in taxpayer funds to house an inmate in a correctional facility; spending $10,000 per summer to put a kid in camp where he or she could learn an array of positive skills and enjoy human interaction experiences that could shape them for life in so many ways seems like a pretty good bargain when you think about it.

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