Reaching Out to Nontraditional Campers: An Interview with Niambi Jaha-Echols

Niambi Jaha-Echols is the author of Project Butterfly, a guidebook for young women of African descent, and founder of Camp Butterfly, a sleep-away summer camp that hosts girls and women of African descent in Watervliet, Michigan. ACA spoke with Jaha-Echols, currently a member of ACA’s National Board of Directors, about Camp Butterfly, the effect of nature on campers’ lives, and the growth and development of children and youth through a camp experience.

Where did you come up with the idea for Camp Butterfly?

I came up with the idea of camp because I had had some positive retreat experiences and knew the value of getting out of the [everyday] environment, separating yourself, and nature. And so I decided to start Camp Butterfly. From the very beginning, we’ve attracted women from various backgrounds of African descent who want to give back to our girls to help them create positive cultural identities and self-images and also know the value of the camp experience and how it can be transformative.

I love the symbolism of the butterfly and the caterpillar, so we use that symbolism in the camp. Of course, it’s “Camp Butterfly.” But the reason we use it is not just because butterflies are cute, but because they are such a symbol of hope for girls and women that where you start off doesn’t have to necessarily dictate where you will end. And just like the caterpillar, transformation is not something that is instantaneous or automatic — it’s a process.

What role does nature play in the transformation of the girls at Camp Butterfly?

At residential camp, the participants garden, and then they eat the vegetables and fruits they’ve picked in the garden. It’s something as simple as that, but for someone in the city whose concept of where you get food is the local grocery store, you don’t have the connection that it actually comes from the earth. By the time they get it, it’s all packaged and pretty in a store — it’s important to have that physical experience of actually picking the food and experience food that is not tampered with in any way — not shot up with pesticides and those kinds of things. It tastes different. So girls realize the connection of the earth and actually seeing it come out of the ground is a powerful piece.

We use nature and we conspire with nature for our personal development. We are nature, so to really understand our connection, that we collectively need the earth to breathe and be sustained, helps us to own our own power. But it also gives us a global connection with a sense that we’re all connected. That’s what we hope to sustain with Camp Butterfly: helping our girls and women understand their connection to nature and the earth.

What can camps do to help all girls soar?

I think one thing that camps can do is to really listen to our young people. The world is so very different from when we grew up and their connections are with Facebook and social media. With all of these different things, kids have so much access to information. What they need is support from adults to help decipher this world — this adult world that bombards them.

It’s critical to create experiences where they are respected, and I think being culturally sensitive is important, too. We need to understand that the way they experience the world is not the way we experience the world. We need to be looking through their eyes.

Part of the way of doing this is to really listen to them and incorporate some of the things that they see as fun or exciting. They have a lot of intelligence and they truly do want the creative support, we just have to give them opportunities to express that. I think what many of our girls love is that when they come into camp, they don’t have to ascribe themselves to the typical cliques. They’re embraced as a family, so that automatically sets up a different tone. They understand: “It’s not about competition; I can just be myself.” And that’s what all of us are thinking — it’s more about finding ourselves and being more authentic in who we are.