The vision began in 1988 when a 28-year-old Ethiopian student named Mulugeta Seraw was bludgeoned to death by a gang of skinheads in Portland, Oregon. In response, a group of community leaders from the state’s American Leadership Forum (ALF) Class III chapter initiated an experimental youth camp to help foster tolerance and respect for other’s differences. Camp Odyssey, originally planned for only three years, instead ran for twelve, providing over 1000 youth (and adults) from every ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic background in the Pacific Northwest a safe space to explore their biases, address “isms” and learn about the painful impact of oppression.
Two decades later, the core issues the program addressed are still relevant. According to FBI Crime Statistics, hate crimes have increased in Oregon and Washington consecutively from 2006-2009. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, discrimination against immigrants, South Asians, Middle Eastern groups and Muslims have increased, causing global sentiments about the Islamic faith to become less tolerant. With Obama’s election, there is an assumption we no longer need a space to talk about oppression and its connection to exclusion, yet progress in social justice has not gone forward, but sideways instead. As the economy continues to lag, oppression gets worse as people have less, and through fear, become less open to others in response. Thus, the diminished space in which to have courageous conversations promoting inclusion, and the need to end discrimination of all types has compelled a group of alumni campers to come together, reviving the program that changed their lives, Camp Odyssey.
Throughout its years Camp struggled with shifting fiscal sponsors, unable to find a parental organization able to offer long-term stability. It is this reason that caused Odyssey to dissolve in 2002, when the fiscal sponsor at the time was forced to close their Oregon chapter for economic reasons. When the alumni initially met, one of the first questions they addressed was how to ensure sustainability, security and growth. Viewing their Mission and Vision beyond the definitions of a camp however, their answer was to form The Piece, and seek independent certification as a 501c3 non-profit, forever ensuring a permanent home for Camp Odyssey. This alumni group is serving as the Steering Committee, who, along with an Advisory Council of original Camp founders, are making the dream become a reality again, with the next generation of Odyssey set to occur August 7-13, 2011. The Piece's non-profit certification is also expected to be complete by the end of 2011.
In a society where systems continue to exclude and box people in, we believe that creating safe spaces to learn and explore difficult issues of oppression, in turn, creates empathy and passion in individuals. With over 20 years observing the effects of Camp Odyssey in our own lives, we see that empowerment grown within allows people, and youth in particular, to understand themselves and their communities in different ways, often leading them to engage with the world differently. That practice of sharing and engagement is the root of what we describe as "building community."
A community is like a tapestry, composed of many beautiful threads woven together to create an even more beautiful whole; this "whole" has strength and resiliency to bend and flex without tearing. On the other hand, beneath the surface is an array of tangled, often messy loose threads--all of which contribute to the the work of art which is the other side of the cloth. The goal of our Mission activities is to see, care for and appreciate the uniqueness of each person, to face directly the messiness of living together, and to create alliances which can bond us together in a stronger whole.
The "Piece" comes from a long history of use at Camp, referring to owning our piece in society and systemic oppression, speaking our piece and truths, and the pieces of work that still need to be done, towards social change and human dignity. In full disclosure, our use of the term is frequent, sometimes even bordering on over-usage, but as a result when needed, it has also served to lighten the mood, reminding us to not take ourselves too seriously! It is with this appreciation of human nature, reality, humor, and good intentions that we embrace the word as not only our name, but our truth, even if it still gives us the giggles sometimes. We welcome you, and want to know, "What's Your Piece?"