Bay Area Camp Suddenly Closes After Staffers Quit Over Swastika Scandal

·6 min read
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A California camp known for being socially and environmentally conscious was abruptly canceled for the entire summer after several staff members quit due to alleged structural racism.

Now, 900 or so campers will have to find an alternative way to spend their summer break.

“This is the first time in our history that we canceled all Camp programming,” a letter to the Hidden Villa community read Wednesday. “Staffing for Camp has been a challenge over the past several years. In anticipation, we significantly invested in outreach, but still struggled with meeting programmatic needs.”

The letter, which was signed by board chair Peter Hartzell and interim executive director Philip Arca, explained that although the camp had faced staff shortages in recent years, the new wave of resignations came after a disagreement about swastika symbols.

According to the Los Altos Town Crier, the Bay Area camp usually employs 40 to 50 staff members each season. But this summer, only 28 were on the roster.

Hidden Villa—which is home to a camp, hiking trails, and farm—once belonged to Frank and Josephine Duveneck, according to the camp’s statement. On the couple’s honeymoon to Asia in 1913, they brought back and hung artistic tiles with lotuses and Buddhist symbols, including the swastika, which was later appropriated by the Nazi Party after the first World War to represent white supremacy.

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“It was brought to the community’s attention that the Buddhist symbols were experienced differently and some individuals experienced harm from their presence on the building. A process to address the issue was identified with Staff and Board,” the letter, which was posted on the camp’s website, read.

According to the letter, the camp held a meeting and decided to remove the symbols from public view on Monday, and they were gone by Tuesday. However, staff members still chose to resign on Sunday—before any action was taken.

The camp also shared the news on its official Facebook page, where community members were quick to share their thoughts and well-wishes.

“I’m saddened to hear this news and the reasons behind it. I was a camper in the 1960s,” posted Alan McInnes. “[T]he camps were incredibly diverse and inclusive then. I was exposed to a number of children of different ethnic and social backgrounds that I would not have experienced otherwise. It helped broaden my young developing mind. …I hope that these issues can be overcome as Hidden Villa is an important resource for education and recreation in these challenging times.”

“Nazism co-opted the swastika as a symbol of evil, and has taken it away from Asian cultures. The decision to take down these tiles may or may not have been correct,” Bob Pang said. “I personally feel like this was an opportunity to explain the deeply religious and spiritual history of this symbol to campers and to help erase the negative stigma associated. Maybe this was not possible, and the symbol will forever be tainted and a source of distress for individuals in Western countries.

The Los Altos Town Crier reported that camp director Philip James, who is Black, quit because of alleged institutional racism and also took issue with the swastikas.

Camp assistant director Mimi Elias, who is a queer person of color, told the newspaper, “Every day I had to go to my place of residence and had to look at swastikas and walk beneath them.” She also resigned.

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The departures highlight “the need for the organization to continue to pause, reflect, and further develop plans of action to address the racial equity concerns shared by staff,” the letter reads. “Honoring and welcoming people from all backgrounds at Hidden Villa is core to who we are and what we stand for. Any pain that our current and former staff, especially any Staff of Color, have felt during their tenure at the organization, deeply saddens us. We are committed to creating an environment where all feel seen, welcome, and heard.”

Hidden Villa leadership ended the letter with a vow that the camp would continue investing in racial equity in terms of staff training, but would also push harder for cultural inclusivity.

“The decision to cancel Camp has been heart-wrenching and staff is still triaging care for all involved,” the letter concluded. “We will continue to come together internally to outline the next steps to address these issues, restore the health of our community process, and we will share the plan with you.”

Though some in the Hidden Villa community were disappointed by the camp’s closure but still supportive, others were doubtful the camp would see any social improvement.

“As a former staff member, it seems that the whole story is not being shared here,” Kendra Moss Saffie wrote. “Sad to see that the public gets one story that seems to blame the staff, while the structures of inequality and lack of support for staff that come from higher up are not really being discussed to the full extent.”

“[Y]ou do know that all those parents and kids are unlikely to get another good camp spot this late? Camps fill up in January around here. HV camp spots usually fill the same day registration opens. You have screwed those families, and they are unlikely to forget it. And you deserve the consequences,” Deborah Grönke Bennett wrote.

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Hidden Villa began its humanitarian programs in 1924, according to the organization’s website. Along with hosting a summer camp, Hidden Villa has a variety of events for children to learn about animals, agriculture, activism, and historical social issues. Hidden Villa credits itself with creating the first interracial, residential summer camp and providing a haven for Japanese Americans during the second World War. Social justice is highlighted on the Hidden Villa’s Facebook page, including LGBTQ+ awareness, Black History Month, and civil rights initiatives of Cesar Chavez.

Despite the camp’s outward socially progressive ideology, some former campers and staffers believe inequality is embedded in its system.

“So your statement is completely blaming the staff for the cancellation?? Take accountability for your toxic white supremacy driven organization,” Alex Roth-Dunn posted on Facebook.

“The problem is MUCH MUCH MUCH more than some tiles in the Duveneck house. The fact that you focus on that in the letter is laughable and all too classic,” said former staff member Eve Javey. “Hidden Villa’s leadership and upper management have continued to create an unsafe space for trans staff and staff of color year after year. I tried to bring this to the forefront of the conversation when I worked there and in return I was bullied and told I was the problem.”

Hidden Villa declined to comment to The Daily Beast, but did say its biggest priority for the time being is taking care of its camp community.

“There is a lot of pain we need to tend to,” the organization wrote.

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