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Inhabiting the Possible: Pedagogy and Solidarity at Camp Ayandeh

[Students at Camp Ayandeh. Image from author's archive] [Students at Camp Ayandeh. Image from author's archive]

“A decent education cannot be limited to tolerating youth accessing their ethnic and cultural history but must be about facilitating their right to do so.” — Cornel West

Globally and nationally, young people are garnering attention as historical actors and agents of social change. At the same time, federal, state, and local politicians are making drastic cuts to primary and secondary schooling, community services supportive of youth development, and higher education. These cuts coincide with a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and continued demonization of Muslim and Middle Eastern communities. They also intersect with attempts to restrict or dismantle hard-fought ethnic studies programs. These attempts reflect a movement towards narrow, test-based curricula that are more informed by what is good for private business than what is good for students.  

Such conditions threaten the existence and continued development of educational spaces that meaningfully serve young people from immigrant and diasporic backgrounds. In this piece, I describe one such program: Camp Ayandeh (ayandeh means “future” in Persian). This program seeks to realize students’ rights to access and participate in their own histories. These reflections offer pedagogical insights, explore relationships between education and social change, and argue for programs that recognize difference and hybridity as profound resources for learning. [1]

Organized by Iranian Alliances Across Borders. Camp Ayandeh provides a positive, inclusive environment where Iranian American high school students learn about their shared histories and build solidarity across differences. Through cultural, historical, and artistic workshops, as well as community-building activities and critical dialogue, Camp Ayandeh helps students identify and respond to issues they see affecting young people in the Iranian diaspora. This includes working together to deconstruct negative images, and develop more humanizing and complex narratives about their communities, families, and themselves.

Now in its seventh year, Camp Ayandeh has become a unique sociocultural experience organized by young Iranian American adults for Iranian American youth. For one week during the summer, eighty-five high school students and thirty-five collegiate staff build what many participants refer to as a family. Together, they generate the trust necessary to grapple with questions of history and identity, and thereby grow as leaders and human beings.

As the current Camp Ayandeh Director, my perspective is inevitably partial. Part of my role, then, is to seek out tensions and areas for continued growth. As with any narrative, my account is one of many possible views on the camp’s significance.

A Window into Camp Ayandeh

People, what they say and do, and how they treat one another during pedagogical activities are what make up educational environments. Given the opportunity to visit and observe interactions at Camp Ayandeh, you would likely notice the mixing of seemingly dissonant languages, genres, and cultural forms: English and Persian, affectionately referred to as “Penglish” or “Fargilisi”; popular Iranian, Middle Eastern, global, and American music and dance; traditional poetry and hip hop; vasati (Iranian dodgeball), and even spontaneous water balloon fights.

You might also sense the organic rhythm of everyday life at the camp, a marker of the community ethos that deepens as the week unfolds. Waiting for the start of morning activities transforms into an occasion for collective singing and dancing. A question about the meaning of the word “cipher” in a writing workshop that draws on Jay Z’s Decoded leads to its own cipher later that day, with a staff member free-styling over a camper’s beat box. 

A community organizing workshop that teaches campers how to strategize around an issue of concern leads one group to conduct a camp survey on the need for Middle Eastern and Global Studies at the high school level. Another group drafts and later presents a “Campers’ Bill of Rights,” including well thought-out demands, such as thirty minutes of informal time before lights out, and signatures from all fellow campers. Camp organizers publicly amend and sign the document, participating in an impromptu democratic process initiated by the campers. An evening jam session inspires a thirteen-year-old and eighteen-year-old to play guitar together for the entire camp, a performance they had humbly shied away from earlier that day. 

The following video, filmed and edited by Sophomore Leila Sadri, conveys the atmosphere created at Ayandeh.

Above all, you might notice relationships—across age, gender, language, region, first and second-generation immigrants, as well as administrators, counselors, and campers. Traversing difference, such friendships make the cliques and hierarchies of high school seem strange. Older students intentionally reach out to younger participants, sitting together during breaks or chanting one of their names at dinner. Counselors stay up late into the night to brainstorm new ways of encouraging their group members to bond, making sure no one feels left out.

Many identify these “familial” relationships as the most meaningful part of their camp experience. Sophomore Arman Sharif comments, “I literally did not dislike anyone at camp. These are all awesome people. After discussions, being together, and just hanging out, they became my family for life.” Senior Anahita Asefirad echoes, “I can’t believe I could become such good friends with people in seven days.” These comments stand in stark contrast to what many campers share as their initial reaction and hesitancy towards the idea of an Iranian American summer program; it would likely be “extremely lame” to join a camp for “a bunch of Iranian kids.” 

Seen in this light, Camp Ayandeh is an attempt by young people with shared histories and experiences of exclusion to create a space of radical inclusion. Together, they seek to resist the demonization of Iran and the Middle East and interrupt the processes of racialization that often turn inwards, compelling us to reject parts of ourselves in order to belong. To heal these splits—Iranian versus American, East versus West—camp participants call into question colonial ideologies that premise inclusion on assimilation. They imagine and inhabit alternative models of inclusion, learning to assert linguistic and cultural hybridity as a strength rather than a deficit. This, I suspect, leads to much of the joy at camp: a social and educational experience where membership is not premised on checking parts of one’s identity at the door. Camp participants are encouraged to know and be their full selves, and to try out possible selves.

At their best, spaces like Ayandeh make it safe to engage in the vulnerability necessary for any kind of real learning. Speaking beautifully-accented Persian or English becomes comfortable despite past experiences of shame or ridicule. Raising a genuine but potentially controversial question or reading a poem’s rough draft to over one hundred people becomes a daily possibility. Such risks may seem small. But in the history of American education, which often explicitly or implicitly demeans students who do not fit dominant cultural norms, they are important markers of educational dignity and change.

Pedagogical Principles

Though many of us refer to the Ayandeh experience as a “magical” one, such contexts do not emerge magically. They are intentionally organized around a number of key principles and grounded in a history and institutional memory that directly inform how participants move in the present.

First, Camp Ayandeh is organized to be a community of learners where all participants are encouraged to take on the dual roles of teacher and student. This approach is distinct from “adult-centered” or “banking” models that treat students as empty receptacles of knowledge. But it is also critical of “student-centered” models that conflate democratic pedagogy with teacher passivity. In a community of learners, all participants are active. Young professionals and graduate and undergraduate students break down interpretations of the Iranian Revolution or model how to read a Hafez poem, making their knowledge public and available for younger members to engage. At the same time, older community members recognize the depth of experience and understanding younger participants have to offer, seeking out opportunities to share responsibility (as in the case of the “Campers Bill of Rights”) and acknowledge countless lessons learned from one another.  

Learning is understood as a deeply social process that comes alive in the context of inter-generational collaboration and mentorship. In contrast to emphasizing “independent learning,” Camp Ayandeh’s approach seeks to generate a culture of assistance, trust, and community— valuable goals in and of themselves that also amplify what is pedagogically possible. Educators must therefore set the collective tone and model careful ways of being and interacting. When moments of disrespect or potential exclusion do arise, staff members are responsible for firmly but lovingly reminding participants of the community rules.  

Listen closely during camp discussions and you might notice the collective hush when each person speaks. The hush is of often a bit quieter when the speaker is a younger camper or someone who has not spoken up before among the whole group. You will hear finger snaps ripple out across the audience when a speaker strikes a collective chord or says something that resonates with an individual camper’s experience. I personally noticed few if any student comments ending without snaps of praise and support. Such moves index the trust that is continuously established, a working faith in others to responsibly hold each person’s contribution from solid assertions to tentative wonderings or doubts. They also give experiential meaning to terms like “solidarity” and “leadership development.”

Second, Camp Ayandeh situates learning in a context of play, creativity, and imagination. Music, poetry, dance, theater, hip hop, and writing provide affective and creative resources for young people to reflect on their lives and participate in cultural production. These crafts also open up new aesthetic forms that affirm the range of our bi-cultural experiences. While many participants describe the pressures they feel to be “fully” Iranian or American, art redefines the cultural borderlands as a reservoir of creativity, inviting students to render their experiences with honesty and specificity.

Drawing on the work of Brazilian educator Augosto Boal [2], Camp Ayandeh uses theater as a form of dramatic play that allows participants to take on and explore different characters, including the protagonists and antagonists of everyday life. This summer, older and younger campers worked together to develop scenes that addressed racial profiling, patriarchy, bullying, and family conflicts. Given such heavy topics, play and imagination provided spiritual nourishment and helped maintain a focus on the hopeful and possible, blending humor with social analysis and creative, non-violent resistance. As Senior Sheerin Tehrani comments, “I liked teatro because it taught us how to act in case someone was using common prejudices against us in any scenario and how to react and educate others about our culture and heritage."

One could argue that a summer camp is more conducive to such playful artistry. However, primary, secondary, and university classrooms can enable intellectual experimentation by privileging the subjunctive—what if, perhaps, could be, let’s try it out—valuing well-crafted questions over quick or easy answers. Humor and creativity can help teachers provoke genuine engagement and resist various forms of ideological rigidity.

Play is also about mastering and bending rules, offering a way to think about expanding students’ access to dominant cultural tools without promoting assimilation. Young people are often the most skilled at this type of ingenuity and more likely to learn instructions only to invent their own versions and purposes. Yet, in times of forced austerity, art, music, and even writing are the first to be pushed out the school door. Educators can help stymie the deeply troubling effects of such decisions by sneaking them back in through the window, finding opportunities to infuse traditional subjects with the artistic and creative.

Finally, learning about oneself and one’s history is fundamentally connected to building solidarity with others. At Camp Ayandeh, we emphasize the world of diversity within the terms “Iranian” and “American,” making explicit reference to the rich histories of communities of color in the United States. Many camp organizers are students of Ethnic and Women’s Studies, borrowing and refashioning tools to make sense of our experiences as Iranian Americans.

During the camp’s American history workshop, we listened to Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Woody Guthrie’s Deportee, treating songwriters as historians that can help us view the past through the eyes of those pushed to society’s margins. Camp participants are often eager to talk about race and racism. Many students express frustration at the negative portrayal of Muslim and Middle Eastern communities in the media. Almost all can relay a personal experience of discrimination, from teachers mockingly mispronouncing their names to being attacked and labeled as a “terrorist.” Camp Ayandeh seeks to provide a safe space for critically analyzing and healing from these experiences.

In the process, campers often grapple with their own stereotypes and assumptions. Echoing the cultural exceptionalism espoused by some members of the older generation, students have suggested that Iranians ought to be recognized as uniquely high-achieving and successful, or as distinct from other groups in the region. In one theater scene, campers portrayed two passengers harassing an Iranian family at the airport. One actor countered the antagonists’ stereotypical generalizations by insisting: “We are Iranian, not Arab.”

In response, camp organizers urge students to consider how cultural and community pride can be developed without creating new hierarchies. This includes naming the divisive nature of “model minority” myths and working with students to recognize the complex intersections of race, class, gender, and educational access. It also means explaining how phrases such as “Persian pride”—though meant to combat discrimination—reflect a kind of ethnic chauvinism. Without opportunities to develop nuanced understandings at a younger age, unexamined reactions to discrimination can erase the ethnic and religious diversity among Iranians and contribute to divisions with other communities of color.  

Thus, a key strand of this year’s curriculum was solidarity across Iranian American and Arab American communities. Through a number of special guests and activities, we sought to highlight our shared regional histories and experiences as Middle Eastern Americans. Yousef Baker, an Iranian Iraqi sociologist, recounted his family’s migration story and posed the question “Where is home?” For those displaced by war, political and economic upheaval, Baker suggested, “Home is building a home for those who do not have a home.” Egyptian American writer and professor Moustafa Bayoumi offered narratives and reflections from his book, How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, explicating the post-September 11 context defining much of campers’ lives. [3]

Syrian American hip-hop artist, Omar Offendum, shared his experiences, music, and poetry, affirming the power of bi-cultural artists to construct bridges across borders.  

As captured in the back and forth between Offendum and the audience, solidarity lives in the establishment of a meaningful human connection, one that gives life to, as college freshman Rameen Vafa put it: “having each other’s back.” Such moments not only suggest that we are able to unlearn assumptions and connect across difference, but that we have a deep desire to do so.

Social and Educational Dreams

In the United States, education is organized such that students, if given access, must often wait until college to take courses in Ethnic Studies or Middle Eastern history and literature. This fits with assimilationist trends in American schooling that require young people to access the other from the standpoint of the dominant group, rather than from a conscious position of solidarity and identification. But it may also be premised on another set of assumptions: that immigrant students do not want to learn about their homelands and connect with their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences. Or, young people are presumably not yet capable of thinking in mature ways about the social and historical forces that shape their lives. Spaces like Camp Ayandeh directly challenge these assumptions and urge teachers, academics, artists, journalists, community leaders, and elders to continue making their insights available to youth by engaging their questions and listening to what they have to say.

Manuel Espinoza refers to programs like Camp Ayandeh as “educational sanctuaries,” local attempts, either inside or outside school, to provide the “artistic and intellectual freedom, social equity, and access to educational resources typically not enjoyed in everyday institutional settings.” [4] Such contexts stand as lived arguments for the kind of schools and social experiences we would like to bring into being. But sanctuaries, by definition, provide refuge from harm. Their existence is also a testament to the epistemic and cultural violence many immigrant and diasporic youth continue to experience. 

This reality underscores a central tension within such educational efforts; students are offered a powerful but limited encounter with a uniquely supportive, culturally relevant pedagogical setting. Such an experience can embolden participants to stand up for themselves and others, while being confident in who they are. But it can sometimes also make the relative absence of cultural recognition or community that much more pronounced. Camp staff has sought to address this tension by staying connected throughout the year and helping campers join or develop similar spaces back home. Though many successfully do so, they also frequently express the desire for an “Ayandeh High School.”

In a workshop on educational equity, Ayandeh counselor Sara Mokhtari-Fox asked participants to imagine and illustrate their ideal school. Alongside the waterslides and tree-houses, campers’ final designs included clean buildings and healthy cafeteria food, smaller classes, teachers that “promote rather than punish students,” courses on Iran and the Middle East, and a focus on learning over testing. Their basic demands echoed those of students and educators around the country and world, many of whom connect the right to a quality public education with broader struggles for economic and social change. As we support these struggles, let us also join young people in dreaming up and practicing alternatives—educational models fit for a more just and democratic future.                                                                                                                         

[1] Kris D. Gutiérrez, Patricia Baquedano-López, and Carlos Tejeda, “ Rethinking Diversity: Hybridity and Hybrid Language Practices in the Third Space,” Mind, Culture, and Activity: An International Journal 6, no. 4 (1999), 286-304.

[2] Augosto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy (New York: Routledge Press, 1995).

[3] Moustafa Bayoumi, How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).

[4] Manuel Espinoza, “A Case Study of the Production of Educational Sanctuary in one Migrant Classroom,” Pedagogies: An International Journal 4, no. 1 (2009), 44-62.

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