Open Letter About the Fat Mermaid/Merfolks/Sea Creatures Camp
As many of you know I produced the Fat Mermaid / Merfolks / Sea Creatures Creation Camp on March 28-April 1, 2019 in Alachua, Florida.
I tried to do something that I didn't fully know how to do, and that came at the expense of the participants, the people I employed at the camp, my collaborators outside of the event, my audience of kindred spirits who believe in me and my career. I’m very sorry for the harm that I have caused, and I will do my best to name that harm in this letter and to be accountable.
I had been to many growth-oriented weekend getaways (camps, retreats and the like) and thought I had what it takes to create a camp and I was very wrong. By way of more context for folks reading this who did not attend, there were 12 attendees, one paid photographer, one paid event planner, one work-trade dishwasher/helper/accessibility assistant, one work-trade chef for breakfasts and dinners, and myself as aerobics instructor/facilitator/producer/lunch-preparer.
The attendees and staff at the event were a cross-section of fat folks, disabled folks, neuro diverse folks, poor folks, chronically ill folks, non-binary folks, queer folks, BIPOC folks, and women. I apologize to each and every one of you for the micro-aggressions, trauma, and other forms of hurt and oppression you experienced.
I also directly apologize to any of my audience of kindred spirits who felt like I let you down. I know a lot of folks look to me for inspiration and healing and expected more from me, either from my work at the mermaid camp or from my accountability process.
There are a lot of things that I wish I had done differently and that I only understand now in hindsight, which I’ll explore below.
Schedule of the Weekend
I have learned an important lesson about creating a printed schedule for attendees of an event. I’ve been to many retreats and camps, weekends and longer, where I’ve experienced both having a schedule and not having a schedule and had decided to make the schedule more adaptable so that we could have more room to create.
I understand now that folks need and want a schedule, even if that schedule is on a white board in a central location and can get moved around. Not having a schedule is stressful for folks and creates a power dynamic around who has information and who doesn't. It decreases agency for the folks in attendance and decreases accessibility. Folks don’t understand what’s happening and thus it becomes harder for them to center their self care. Not having a printed schedule centralized me as the person with the decision making over how we would be spending our time and reduced autonomy for the participants and staff.
I really screwed up by expecting verbal communication alone to work in a group of 17. I am sorry again for this mistake.
I now understand so much more about work-trade positions at a paid event. I was excited to be able to offer the event to more folks by offering free attendance, lodging, and food to folks who would help me create the event for our attendees.
I offered a position for a chef to cook meals and a person to help clean up after meals. These positions required more time than I had originally thought. I should have incorporated these into the budget as fully paid positions, reflecting the value of these necessary parts of meeting the needs of the attendees.
I asked that the chef create the menu based upon the dietary restrictions communicated to my event planner during pre-event phone calls they had with each attendee. I’m very sorry that they worked longer hours than they had thought, that the number of attendees was miscommunicated and it decreased their capacity to experience the camp.
I have now paid the chef $500 as compensation, which I know falls far short of what their value was to the camp. I realize now I should have created a budget that increased paid staff members instead of offering work-trade.
In the pre-event accessibility phone calls I asked event planner asked each person what snacks would delight them. I bought every snack requested, and kept a snack table stocked and available 24/7 throughout the event. We also went to Publix, the local grocery store, every day of the event to restock the snack table and for meal prep because the refrigerator was not big enough to hold all the food we needed.
Doing this prep work doesn’t mean that people understood that it happened and I’m so sorry that folks felt hungry. I should have created signs to enhance communication around food, including signs letting folks know when to expect meals and what snacks were available.
It was also shared that one of the work-trade folks (a person who identifies as BIPOC) slept on the floor in the main house. This person had their own room and bathroom in the staff house. I understand now that they did not feel comfortable sleeping in the staff house, and chose to move to the bigger house where the camp attendees were sleeping. I understand now that my interactions with them lead to them not feeling safe staying in the staff house, even with their own room.
There was at least one extra bed that wasn’t slept in by an attendee, and there were extra mattresses that were available from the owner of the house as “snoring solutions” for folks to use in case a roommate was snoring. It was never my intention that anyone sleep on the floor and I’m sorry that this person experienced discomfort in the staff house and their alternative was to sleep on the floor. I wish I could have been available to create more comfortable solutions for them.
Many of the participants found the house that I rented on airbnb to host the camp inadequate. The staircase was old and steep, the toilets were inadequate for superfat folks, there wasn’t enough comfortable furniture and some of the beds were inadequate.
I’ve learned an important lesson about thoroughly researching a space before producing an event there. In the future, I would build into the budget paying someone to do an accessibility audit of the space before the event. I would ask that person to audit the accessibility of toilets, quality of beds, and the staircase. Having this information and a video walkthrough available for folks interested in attending so that they may make an informed decision about whether their needs can be met by a space would be so crucial for accessibility.
I would also do more research on the land we were visiting. I was not aware until after the event that the land that the house I rented was on the grounds of a former plantation.
In my own white privilege, I thought that because the house listing on AirBNB said that it was built in 1865 that it wasn’t a plantation house. Now that I understand more of the history of the era, and of central Florida I understand that it being built after abolition doesn’t mean that it is without a horrific history of slavery. I am incredibly sorry for inviting anyone, but especially Black folks, to a former plantation for what I had hoped was a creative camp experience.
As a result of the feedback I received, within three days of the closing of this event I ceased production on any future Fat Kid Dance Party camps and retreats. I did this so that I could fully understand the feedback and audit the harm caused from this camp. I do not wish to perpetuate any further harm.
During those first three days I sent individual apologies to each attendee and staff member who had sent me feedback, offered $500 each to the work-trade staff who asked for compensation, and sent an apology email to all staff and attendees acknowledging that I had heard feedback about the camp and was committing to do the work to understand the harm.
All remaining photos were sent to attendees one month following the close of camp, the delay due to my own lack of capacity to sort, edit and transfer the size of files. A professional photographer friend ultimately helped me send these and I’m grateful for the help and apologize once more to the attendees for the delay.
I have offered refunds to those who requested them, minus what was paid to the photographer, and explain below the status of those payments.
Folks have expressed confusion over why I hired a coach to help with the accountability process. I take accusations of racism very seriously, and to be frank, I didn’t understand how my actions were racist.
I hired a Black queer fat femme to help me understand where and why my actions created harm, to dig into what was behind them and help me uproot the behaviors and fears that were behind those actions. I have had a lot of transformational experiences with coaches in the past who have helped me create less harm to myself and others. I thought that hiring this coach would help me move forward without perpetuating further harm. She helped me understand that my communication style was creating micro-agressions. I’ve since read two books on communication and am working with a mentor to further mend my communication style. I am committed to doing better with any space I create in the future.
My coach also helped me understand that, in the future, creating staff culture where the staff feels cared for will better improve how the participants experience care during events. In the future I would build into the budget time for the staff to arrive together before attendees arrive to create the caring and loving culture I was hoping folks would experience at the Mermaid Camp. I am so sorry that any of the attendees and staff did not feel cared for. I’m committed to creating experiences that better communicate the love I have for the folks at events I create.
I think that it is important to talk openly about money. I had the intention to make the camp affordable. I charged $975-$1175 (or $195-$235 per day) sliding scale for 4 nights / 5 days. Including all meals and snacks, lodging, professional glamour photographs, daily aerobics classes and swag.
I included one full scholarship attendee as part of the budget, including paid air travel donated by a friend of mine, and allowed another attendee to pay via payment arrangement, who ultimately did not pay. The profit I was set to make on this camp was $1,000, and after the non-payment my profit became $0 and has already cost thousands in refunds, with more to come.
As soon as the feedback came in and the work trade folks wanted payment, I offered them each $500. I paid them out of my savings account, which emptied it. I asked each to sign Independent Contractor Agreements to comply with tax and employment law, and revised the agreements after receiving feedback about the agreements being too complex. Both of the work-trade folks have been paid.
I offered refunds on a payment plan to anyone who paid to attend the camp who felt they wanted one. After I made this offer, several of the attendees created PayPal claims and credit card chargebacks, which have resulted in a negative several thousand dollar balance on my PayPal account.
Some of the folks haven’t yet received a refund, and I am still working to find the money to issue those refunds. This camp has also coincided with my partner leaving me, who was our bread winner. I present this simply as an honest context for my financial situation with regards to refunds. I was already barely able to make my rent and bills with the money I was making from teaching aerobics, but that is no longer the case as my business has been deeply affected.
I am now driving for Lyft in a rental car. I say this not to center myself, but to let folks know that I’m not a person of means nor do I come from means, and thereby explain why the refunds aren’t yet fully paid. I have applied for business loans and been denied, asked for personal loans from friends and so far have not had luck funding this. I am trying to dig out of this financial hole.
All I can say in this area is that I am doing my best and will continue to. I don’t yet have a payment plan set up because I am still digging out of the financial hole of the refunds that were issued via PayPal and Credit Card chargebacks, but I hope by October being able to refund one person per month who has requested the refund who hasn’t yet received it.
Fat Kid Dance Party aerobics is my passion, and I’ve loved creating a space for all people to feel affirmed in their bodies just as they are over the years. I hoped folks at the event would take great photos, enjoy Fat Kid Dance Party aerobics, make lifelong friends, learn more about themselves, and most of all that they would enjoy the experience. I’m heartbroken that this didn’t happen and I promise that nothing like this will ever happen again.
Some of you have asked why it’s taken me so long to post a comprehensive response naming all of the harm. There are many things I could point to. While some folks offered constructive feedback and concerns, many have just bombed me with vitriol. Folks who weren’t even at the event have called me hateful, questioned my integrity, accused me of blatant racism, and contacted businesses I have agreements with to ask them not to work with me in light of these allegations.
Those comments were hard to even look at, much less respond to, and I had already reached out directly to the attendees of the event. The coaching process has taken far longer than I thought. Having already addressed this issue in three posts, even if in a manner many found inadequate, I didn’t want to do so again until the work was complete.
The greater truth, though, is that I have been surviving, as I hope you can imagine from what I shared about my life earlier. I know I messed up, and I am sincerely sorry that I didn’t handle this better. I know some of you look up to me and feel like I let you down. I’m sorry.
I’m a human being, far from perfect, and did my best with this accountability process and it wasn’t good enough. It probably won’t be good enough for some of you and I accept that and wish you peace and blessings on your journey. I am here to share my journey of making mistakes, learning lessons, continuing to love and care for my imperfect self and keep moving forward to shine my light in this world that wants to dim so many of us.
With love and resilience,