Monday, July 14, 2008

Human Dignity and Institutional Failing

I've written about my job before, and in the interest of full disclosure: I no longer work there, and this is a blog post inspired by that exit. That out of the way, let me move on to the meaningful, and explain the title of this post.

My job was child-herding, and the daycamp felt like it was little more than an attempt to warehouse children. This was not the objective of the daycamp, and this may well have been an exception particular to the program outlined by the organization, but that doesn't change my impression of the experience. To back this up, I'll give you some numbers:

35-50: The number of kids enrolled and present at the daycamp, in a given day
3-5: The minimum and maximum number of staff present on site at a given time.
1 for 15: The legally required ratio of adults for children under care at a given time.
2: The number of areas at the site we could have children present in; this excludes the bathrooms. The spaces available were a gym and a parking lot.

The circumstances laid bare are daunting, and while I have many years of experience working at summer camps, this was a system far removed from what I was familiar with. The low numbers of staff required an emphasis far different than any work I had previously done with kids, and it was an emphasis I was uncomfortable with.

With 15 kids to a counselor at all times, and more at mealtimes, the most essential role for a counselor to be playing is that of disciplinarian. During game time, this means addressing every single crisis in full before being able to focus any energy on getting the group playing a game. This leads to downtime and the potential for more crises, but since crises are immediately dealt with, the kids who suffer through the longest wait time are the good kids who wait patiently, bored out of their skulls. At mealtimes, this emphasis means that I had to shift from problem to problem, trying to get a solution before another problem arose. We resorted to collective punishment more than a few times, and I knew this was not the right job for me when kids complained about the loss of freedom during a silent lunch and I boasted of how much nicer it made things for the staff.

This job struck against the very tenets of youth empowerment and affirmation of personhood. It wasn't that the people hired didn't hold these views, and it's not because the kids were a special breed of unruly (which they certainly weren't). It was a failing of the institutional set up, a problem of too few staff and too many kids, of training that focused on counselor-parent conflict, and had no emphasis on mediating problems between kids. We were not given an impossible task, but we were given a task that was almost impossible to execute in a way that reflected my core values.

Confronted with this reality for the second time, I left.

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