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New scrapbook-like digital exhibit explores the 70-year-old vision and activity of the Encampment for Citizenship

November 16, 2016

Encampers, circa 1972 VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives

The gallery, “Encampment for Citizenship: Education for Democratic Living,” was launched to coincide with the Encampment’s 70th anniversary, which is being celebrated Saturday in New York City at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

The Encampment for Citizenship was founded in 1946 by Algernon D. Black, a leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and civic leader Alice K. Pollitzer as an opportunity for “young adults of many religious, racial, social and national backgrounds” to learn “the principles and techniques of citizenship … through lived experience.”

“The Encampment for Citizenship is a profoundly idealistic and aspirational organization. You can see in their brochures [in the digital gallery] that asked, ‘Do you want to make the world a better place?’” said Alice Campbell, digital outreach and special projects librarian with VCU Libraries. “They believe so profoundly in democracy and in the possibility of citizen action that I would hope that people — especially young people — would see in this history and in these images people who took steps to make their dreams come true and to make the change that they wanted in society.”

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks with Encampers in 1946. <br>Source: VCU Libraries'

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks with Encampers in 1946. 
Source: VCU Libraries 

The organization, which continues to operate today, aims to prepare young people to be informed, responsible and effective global citizens through experiential learning and through living in a diverse, democratic community. 

The Encampment for Citizenship played a key part in the formative years of numerous leaders and activists, including Miles Rapoport, former president of Common Cause; Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project; Aurelia E. Brazeal, a former U.S. ambassador to Micronesia, Kenya and Ethiopia; and U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the longstanding congresswoman representing Washington, D.C.

Eleanor Roosevelt was an early supporter of the Encampment for Citizenship and often hosted encampers for workshops and discussions at her Hyde Park estate. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was also a vocal supporter and spoke at the Encampment. Photos of both Roosevelt and King at the Encampment can be found among the VCU Libraries’ collection.

“With any exhibit, we hope viewers immerse themselves with the content, ask questions, perhaps seek to learn more about a subject,” said Wesley Chenault, head of Special Collections and Archives at James Branch Cabell Library. “While we certainly want those who visit this exhibition to take away knowledge about the Encampment for Citizenship’s mission and long history, a deeper form of engagement would involve thinking about EFC’s core ideas about youth agency and activism, critical thinking skills and experiential learning, and connecting them to present-day notions of democracy, social justice and global citizenry.”

Ed Peeples, emeritus associate professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at VCU, was an encamper in 1957 — alongside Norton — and went on to serve as director of an Encampment in Kentucky in 1966. Peeples arranged for the Encampment for Citizenships’ archives to be housed at VCU Libraries to preserve the organization’s history and legacy for future generations.

“It’s an extraordinary honor for VCU to be selected to have this collection. It’s a national and international collection,” Peeples said. “It’s extraordinary that we were able to get this.”

The materials would be of interest to anyone concerned with civic education, U.S. history and the importance of teaching youth about thoughtful leadership, Peeples said.

“It’s important for people to remember that citizenship education is a really important thing for us to focus on,” Peeples said. “The way it is today, leadership is a haphazard happenstance of a young person’s life. But the Encampment for Citizenship provides a systematic opportunity to get together — with all the colors and hues of Americans — and live together, not just go and have a seminar together, but [also experience self-governance by forming] a student government and do work in the community. It’s just marvelous what happens.”

Image of telegram from President John F. Kennedy to William F. Haddad, master of ceremonies for an Encampment for Citizenship dinner, which was reprinted in the group's 1964 recruitment brochure.  <br>Source: VCU Libraries'

Image of telegram from President John F. Kennedy to William F. Haddad, master of ceremonies for an Encampment for Citizenship dinner, which was reprinted in the group's 1964 recruitment brochure. Source: VCU Libraries 

A version of this article by Brian McNeill was published by University News. 

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