Hidden Villa, a Los Altos Hills nonprofit known for its pastoral landscape and educational programs, announced on June 8 that all of this year's summer camp sessions are canceled due to the “abrupt departure” of camp staff members, disrupting summer plans for nearly 1,000 children.
But some now-former staff members say the situation was anything but abrupt: their resignations came after months of slow-building conflict that had boiled over –- in particular, the handling of pre-Nazi swastika tiles that were embedded into the exterior of a camp building for nearly a century until they were removed June 7.
“Over this past weekend, four camp staff, including the Summer Camp Director, handed in their resignation effective immediately,” Hidden Villa said in its June 8 announcement to the community.
Part of what caused mass resignation, the announcement said, “was an ongoing process to discuss symbols on the historic Duveneck house,” a focal point of the property. “The house, built in 1929, had three tiles, approximately 12 inches by 12 inches, with Buddhist swastikas and a lotus embedded in the architecture.”
The camp’s founders, Frank and Jospehine Duveneck, purchased the tiles in 1913, years before the ancient Buddhist emblem was co-opted by Nazis into the hate symbol it’s known as today.
Summer Camp Director Philip James, who resigned from his position June 5, said he was first made aware of the swastika tiles last summer, when a camper pointed them out to him. He immediately brought it up to his supervisors.
“I continued to bring that up in conversation and talk about how we (should) do something about it, before it got to the point that it’s at now,” James said in an interview. “And I was consistently told that Hidden Villa is not ready to have these types of conversations.”
James said at one point he was asked to write a letter about the issue to the Villa Voice, a newsletter that goes out to camp staff.
“So I wrote a letter explaining my experience with the camper, and exactly what happened. At the end of it I said, ‘What are the other ways that we can be thinking about how to keep folks safe in this space?’” James said. “Leadership did not like that at all. I was reprimanded. They told me that I was making the Duvenecks look racist, and it wasn’t fair that they’re not here to defend themselves. … I think for me, honestly, that was probably the biggest turning point.”
Hidden Villa’s interim Executive Director Philip Arca stepped into the role in January, so the ongoing conversation around how to address the tiles “was new to me,” Arca said in a June 9 interview. Arca resigned, citing health reasons, the day after his interview with the Voice, according to a June 11 letter sent to Hidden Villa staff from Hidden Villa Board President Peter Hartzell.
Arca said he and other camp leaders started a conversation about possibly adding educational signage to contextualize the tiles, “because there’s a variety of perspectives on this.”
“Initially we thought signage was an option,” Arca said. “The expectations, from my perspective at least, morphed into, they need to be removed.”
“I think we tried to design a process (to remove the tiles) as thoughtful and inclusive as possible,” Arca continued. “… I think for the individuals involved, they may have felt that that took too long, or that there might have been different ways to do that, so I respect that different perspective.”
From James’ perspective, it wasn’t just that the process took too long: he said he feels his voice as a Black person was brushed aside while others’ voices, specifically white staff members, were what finally tipped the needle to get the tiles removed.
Hidden Villa hires two types of staff: year-round team members like James’s position, and seasonal camp staff who only work for the duration of the summer camp program. This year’s summer camp staff had just been brought on board when they learned about the tiles, James said. Some members of the summer camp staff organized on their own and wrote a letter that they delivered to the board and leadership at Hidden Villa on June 3, he said.
“We are not comfortable educating children in proximity to this symbol of hate,” said the letter, a copy of which was given to the Voice by James. “In its presence, we cannot purport to provide a safe or affirming environment. If you do not agree to meet these stated requests, the majority of the undersigned are currently prepared to terminate our employment.”
Two days later, on June 5, Hidden Villa Associate Director Lynn Rivas held a meeting with the camp staff members who wrote the letter to talk about the situation, James said. He had a meeting scheduled with Rivas right after, which James said got quickly heated, and he resigned shortly afterward. Hidden Villa removed the tiles two days later.
“It took over nine months from when (it) was brought to their attention, to fast forward to this Sunday when everything just went down -- it took them less than 48 hours to take them down, after a group of mostly white kids got together and expressed how it made them feel,” said former assistant camp director Mimi Elias, who also resigned. “Versus (James), who had calmly and nicely tried to talk to them, meeting after meeting, but they just wouldn’t listen.”
Arca said camp leadership accepted the resignations and is trying to “move forward and focus on the families.” The camp closure will affect nearly 1,000 campers, he said.
“Since we had insufficient staff and we could not serve the children, we’re trying to be supportive of the rest of the staff,” Arca said. “The focus has really been with the families and the loss of this opportunity for all these families.”