More than two dozen current and former staff members and participants of Chewonki Foundation programs are accusing leaders of stifling conversations about race and sexual orientation, exposing a rift in the 104-year-old environmental education organization.

In an open letter to Chewonki that was shared with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, former staff members Adrianna Beaudette and Kris Thurrell detail two recent examples they say are emblematic of a culture at Chewonki that is not as inclusive as it purports to be.

One involves a staff member who tried to talk about the camp’s history as a place for “wealthy white boys.” The other involves staff members who attempted to talk to campers about sexuality and were told not to.

“We do not deny that Chewonki has been a place of tremendous growth, strength, and joy for many people,” the letter reads. “But these positive experiences do not discount the trauma inflicted on those students and staff who spoke out when they were experiencing discrimination, only to have the organization itself suggest they were not a welcome part of the community anymore.”

The letter was signed by 27 others.

Based in Wiscasset, Chewonki is well known for its separate boys and girls residential summer camps for ages 8 to 16 as well as its coed wilderness trips for older teenagers. Tuition costs as much as $10,300 for a seven-week camp. The foundation also runs a semester-long program for high school juniors during the school year.

The nonprofit’s president, Willard Morgan, said he couldn’t address the specific concerns because he hasn’t seen the letter but said administrators are committed to engaging in these conversations and doesn’t begrudge anyone for speaking out.

“From my limited information, I believe the issues raised are complex, personal, and essential to address,” he said in a statement. “As the President of Chewonki, I care deeply about our participants and our staff, and I firmly believe in the process of continuous learning. It is for this reason that I worked with our staff and trustees to develop a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement in 2018. It is now a core part of our programming and governance.”

Ironically, the release of the diversity, equity and inclusion statement Morgan referenced is what prompted the former staff members to draft their letter.

In an interview, Beaudette said she and others didn’t feel as though Chewonki leaders were hearing their concerns. She also said the diversity, equity and inclusion statement last year came across more like a feel-good gesture than a commitment to meaningful change.

“I want people who are thinking of working there or sending kids there to know that while Chewonki positions itself as doing good work it is perpetuating harm through these actions,” she said.

Roseanne Saalfield, who chairs Chewonki’s board of trustees and is the parent of two former campers, said she couldn’t address the letter specifically because she hasn’t seen it.

“In a perfect world, I’d always prefer people who level these types of accusations come talk to us directly,” she said. “We have offered that and will continue to do so.”

PARTICIPANTS MORE DIVERSE

Chewonki was founded in 1915 as a summer camp for boys. The nonprofit foundation launched in 1962 after a group of alumni bought the property. It has since expanded its programs to include a girls’ camp at the foundation’s northern campus, just south of Baxter State Park, coed wilderness trips across the state, and the Maine Coast Semester, a program for high school juniors at the Wiscasset campus.

The foundation serves 20,000 youths each year from all over the world and focuses on environmental and sustainability programming. For many staff members, though, Chewonki still has the feel of a camp for children of wealthy white families, even as its participants have gotten more diverse.

Kris Thurrell, a former staff member, identifies as non-binary, neither exclusively masculine nor exclusively feminine, and uses the pronouns “they” and “them.” Before being hired in 2014, Thurrell told Chewonki staff of a desire to be open in talking about race and about Chewonki’s origins “as a camp for wealthy, white boys.” Thurrell expressed concern that having an all-white staff was problematic because it ensured white cultural norms would shape the organization’s policies and programs. Thurrell said they met resistance from supervisors after speaking up.

“It seemed like they wanted more praise for the things they did and didn’t want to hear that there were still patterns of systemic oppression,” Thurrell said. “But it’s normal to be resistant, so I wasn’t hypervigilant about it.”

Cullen McGough, communications director for Chewonki, said he couldn’t speak about the staff makeup at the time but said the current staff – of 252 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees – is not all white. He said he could not be more specific because the organization does not keep track, but he said it always tries to attract staff from diverse backgrounds. He also said that last year Chewonki hosted students and campers from 32 states and 18 countries, representing a wide range of races, cultures and sexual and gender identities.

When students asked Thurrell in the fall of 2016 about white supremacy and how it relates to police shootings of unarmed black men, the teacher answered questions. Later, a Chewonki staff member told Thurrell, in front of others, “Stop talking about whiteness so much because it (was) making the white boys uncomfortable,” the letter said.

Thurrell said they were later told that maybe Chewonki wasn’t the right pace for them. Discouraged, Thurrell left the organization.

The other example cited in the letter happened in the summer of 2017. During a wilderness camp for 11- and 12-year-old girls, several campers “identified as queer and talked about their sexuality,” the letter said. The staff members – Matea Mills-Andruk and Laura Telek – engaged with the campers and answered questions. After Chewonki leadership learned about this, they said, Mills-Andruk and Telek were told those conversations “had no place at Chewonki Camp for Girls.”

When the camp ended, some of the campers were upset and told Telek that they felt “put back in the closet.” Chewonki leaders apologized, but Mills-Andruk was saddened by the events and did not return the next summer.

In 2019, Mills-Andruk said, she inquired about returning to Chewonki but was told that it was “no longer a good fit for her.”

‘LIBERAL APPEARANCE’

One of the concerns raised in the letter accuses Chewonki of saying all the right things publicly but not practicing inclusiveness.

“Chewonki’s new (diversity, equity and inclusion) statement is an offensive attempt to maintain the organization’s liberal appearance while protecting themselves from enacting substantive change,” the letter reads.

Beaudette said she believes part of that stems from Chewonki not wanting to risk alienating any well-heeled families who might donate to the foundation or enroll their children, who may later become donors. The other part, she said, is that she’s not convinced that many in upper management are committed to the work because it can be challenging and uncomfortable.

Thurrell agreed with that and said the comment about “making the white boys uncomfortable” seemed like code for “don’t alienate our future benefactors.”

According to its most recent tax filings, Chewonki Foundation’s annual budget is about $7.7 million. The foundation received $1.4 million in contributions and grants and raised $5.9 million in revenue from camp tuition and other fees. The summer camp tuition for boys is $10,300 for seven weeks. Tuition for girls is $6,600 for a three-week program. The coed wilderness trips, also three weeks, cost $5,600. The organization also has $19.5 million in assets, the majority of which is land and an investment portfolio.

Christina Roach of Hollywood, Florida, was a staff member from 2009 to 2015. Like Beaudette and Thurrell, Roach said she thought the leaders at Chewonki might be trying to avoid upsetting its donor class. She said during her time there, the organization felt like “a bit of a bubble.”

She remembers leading a wilderness trip of teenage girls that included two minorities, one of African descent, the other Latin American. She said she didn’t have any guidance or discussions about how to handle or facilitate any conversations about race or diversity that might take place during the trip and said she felt like she would have benefited from it.

“I think the first step is for leadership to take accountability and ownership of what has happened in the past and commit to being more accessible and welcoming to young people,” she said.

Caitlin Thurrell, Kris Thurrell’s sister, also signed the letter as a former Chewonki staff member from 2012 to 2016. She said she doesn’t think Chewonki’s leadership acted with malicious intent, just out of “fear and ignorance and an inability to understand experience significantly outside their own.”

“I don’t think enough people understand that we are living in systems that are damaging,” she said.

The letter signers said they want Chewonki to “end discrimination in their hiring and firing practices,” create a system for staff to safely report discrimination, seek diversity training and acknowledge the foundation’s “anti-black, settler-colonial history.” The letter does not include examples of discrimination in hiring or firing, however, and none of those interviewed for this story cited any.

In a written response to questions, Chewonki’s president said the organization’s “diversity, equity, and inclusion work is a process, not a project with a fixed endpoint, and our DEI statement intentionally describes a future that we have not yet reached.”

Morgan also said one of the reasons for publishing its statement was to signal to alumni and parents that they were serious about making changes.

“They have wholeheartedly embraced that request, providing significant contributions this year to expand programming and facilities for girls, provide ongoing diversity training for staff, and increase financial support for the families who join us,” he said.

Saalfield, the board of trustees chairwoman, said she views the organization as constantly evolving with the times.

“Chewonki clearly is not the place it was 104 years ago when it was founded,” she said.

Caitlin Thurrell said she still has hope.

“Maybe not from those who have the most power, but the people quietly doing the work on the ground every day,” she said. “I don’t want (Chewonki) to be seen as bad. I think we’re all messed up and trying to fix the things we’re doing. I want young people to have that chance.”

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