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Hate symbol or Buddhist emblem? Hidden Villa cancels summer camps for 1,000 kids after staffers resign over swastika tiles

The Duveneck building at Hidden Villa used to feature pre-Nazi era tiles in the shape of swastikas, in Los Altos Hills in 2019. Photo by Heather Zimmerman.

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.

Four Hidden Villa staff members resigned in reaction to the camp's handling of pre-Nazi era swastika tiles that had been displayed on a camp building for nearly a century. Courtesy Hidden Villa.

“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.

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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.

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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.”

Hidden Villa was set to host nearly 1,000 kids for its annual summer camps this year. But the camp abruptly canceled its summer programming after four staff members resigned. Courtesy Dan Quinn.

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Malea Martin covers the city hall beat in Mountain View. Before joining the Mountain View Voice in 2022, she covered local politics and education for New Times San Luis Obispo, a weekly newspaper on the Central Coast of California. Read more >>

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Hate symbol or Buddhist emblem? Hidden Villa cancels summer camps for 1,000 kids after staffers resign over swastika tiles

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Mon, Jun 13, 2022, 5:53 pm

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.”

Comments

Joseph E. Davis
Registered user
Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jun 14, 2022 at 10:31 am
Joseph E. Davis, Woodside: Emerald Hills
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 10:31 am

Does nobody understand that these symbols have meanings in different cultures that have nothing to do with Nazism? This whole thing is absurd. Any upset staffers should have been told firmly to stop complaining, and if they didn't listen, to take their services elsewhere.


Jonathan Leblang
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:30 pm
Jonathan Leblang, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:30 pm

Context and education are key. A cross, set ablaze, is a symbol of hate. A cross, on a church, is a symbol of peace. In the same way, a swastika, in the position depicted (mirror image of the Nazi symbol) is a religious symbol. A swastika, spray-painted on a house, school, or temple, or on a red flag, is a symbol of hate.


JohnLKoenig
Registered user
another community
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:40 pm
JohnLKoenig, another community
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:40 pm

It's so sad that 1,000 kids lose a chance at summer camp due to ignorance and self-centered feelings that something is directed at you. The Hindu swastika is different than the nazi swastika - they go in different directions. How do you think the Hindus feel about the way you react to their symbol?


John R. Ellis
Registered user
Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:43 pm
John R. Ellis, Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:43 pm

Note that the swastika in the photos above points in the opposite direction from the Nazi swastika. I encourage everyone to read this article on swastikas:
Web Link

"The swastika symbol, 卐 or 卍, is an ancient religious symbol, predominantly in various Eurasian, as well as some African and American cultures, now also widely recognized for its appropriation by the Nazi Party and by neo-Nazis.[1][2] It continues to be used as a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.[3][4][5][6][1] It generally takes the form of a cross,[A] the arms of which are of equal length and perpendicular to the adjacent arms, each bent midway at a right angle.[8][9] ... the swastika remains a symbol of good luck and prosperity in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain countries such as Nepal, India, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, China and Japan, and by some peoples, such as the Navajo people of the Southwest United States. It is also commonly used in Hindu marriage ceremonies and Diwali celebrations."

So much for tolerance and diversity...


Jon Castor
Registered user
Woodside: Woodside Heights
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:57 pm
Jon Castor, Woodside: Woodside Heights
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:57 pm

It’s really too bad that this wasn’t the outcome: “educational signage to contextualize the tiles”. Now everyone loses.


menlo parent
Registered user
Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:58 pm
menlo parent, Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 12:58 pm

Willful ignorance on the part of the staff members. Shameful.


Frozen
Registered user
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 14, 2022 at 2:04 pm
Frozen, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 2:04 pm

I am sad to see so many of you bashing the staff for taking a principled stand.

The tiles should have come down as soon as they were noticed. The origin of the symbol and the orientation of the arms are both irrelevant: for most of us, the swastika represents horrific acts of genocide that occurred within the memory of millions still alive today.

To say "it was nothing, get over it" reeks of white privilege. It is also disrespectful to the tens of millions of Jews, Roma, Catholics, and Polish political prisoners whose lives were lost or forever damaged by the regime represented by the swastika. And to the children and grandchildren of the survivors, who still bear the scars.

Thanks to the "mostly white kids" whose voices were finally heard by management. I'm sorry that management was so focused on the reputation of the Duvenecks that it scoffed at the very real concerns raised.


D. B. Carlson
Registered user
Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Jun 14, 2022 at 3:11 pm
D. B. Carlson, Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 3:11 pm

One might hope that administration's 1st reaction would have been to gather staff & discuss. A reasonable course might have been to cover rather than remove the tiles while a script was developed to explain their origin, meaning in pre-Nazi cultures, & the Duveneks' reasons for using them as decoration. Such a script might then have been used to discuss with children, early in the camp session, this symbol and others: cross, flag, "scales" of justice, scouting insignia - used in different parts of the world. Words matter; so do symbols. Understanding their history, use and context broadens our perspective and our understanding. This was an opportunity lost, a teachable moment missed.


Soccer mom
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 14, 2022 at 4:08 pm
Soccer mom, Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 4:08 pm

Totally agree with all who say this is a lost opportunity for education. Without education, context is lost and these "triggered events" will continue to occur throughout time -- wiping away history and opportunities to learn from context. A vicious circle.

I am growing weary of the current tendency to seek outrage. The camp staff may think they are taking a principled stand but really they are showing their lack of education, inflexibility, and intolerance, which is summarized in this piece from the letter: “We are not comfortable educating children in proximity to this symbol of hate.” People, THIS IS when you want to educate. Teach the history of the symbol, teach the differences in its portrayal, teach that one can encounter this symbol in different contexts, teach tolerance, teach debate.


CyberVoter
Registered user
Atherton: other
on Jun 14, 2022 at 4:26 pm
CyberVoter, Atherton: other
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 4:26 pm

This is all very sad! All sides appear to have handled the situation poorly! Management appears to have taken the rational & educational approach - but they moved too slowly & timidly.

Mr. James should have "moved on" quickly if he didn't accept the outcome. Instead, he waited until his departure would have the most negative impact on the institution. He destroyed the opportunities for children to learn this summer due to his personal goals!


John R. Ellis
Registered user
Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:18 pm
John R. Ellis, Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:18 pm

How is it “white privilege” to observe that the swastika continues to have significant meaning to hundreds of millions of non-white people across the world? And that meaning predates and survives the Nazi appropriation of the symbol. I’m sure many of the kids scheduled to attend the camp are from families sharing such cultural heritage.

No one here is saying this episode “was nothing” – to the contrary, many of us think that there was a lost opportunity to educate the kids and staff about true cultural diversity.


John R. Ellis
Registered user
Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:19 pm
John R. Ellis, Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:19 pm
Frozen
Registered user
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:32 pm
Frozen, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:32 pm

Anti-Semitism runs deep in this community.

By the logic expressed by most of you, the Confederate statues and monuments should never have been taken down but rather, augmented by placards explaining their provenance. We can overlook any heinous act if it can be reframed as a teachable moment.


Menlo resident
Registered user
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:40 pm
Menlo resident, Menlo Park: The Willows
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 5:40 pm

My wife and I are Jewish: she is the child of Holocaust survivors, and many of our relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Buddhist symbols that have no relation to Nazism are not at all disturbing. People can readily learn of an object's context and view it accordingly. It is the intended use of something that matters: as philosopher Gilles Deleuze said, "A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window."


Menlo Voter.
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 14, 2022 at 6:04 pm
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 6:04 pm

I don't understand the problem. The symbols are Buddhist not Nazi. The article makes this clear. The Nazi swastika goes in the opposite direction of the Buddhist symbol. How then, when the symbol is Buddhist and not Nazi, can it be considered "hateful". Context is everything. It's a shame that time wasn't taken to educate the uneducated about the symbol they were looking at and misidentifying.


Alan
Registered user
Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 14, 2022 at 7:15 pm
Alan, Menlo Park: Belle Haven
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 7:15 pm

"A cross, set ablaze, is a symbol of hate. A cross, on a church, is a symbol of peace." That's actually a more interesting example. A cross is not merely a symbol, but literally a torture instrument. It became a profound symbol of peace in Christian belief, because Jesus, faced with death on the cross, responded with forgiveness and grace. A non-Christian, faced with an over-zealous believer wearing a cross, may have a very negative reaction to it, because they just associate it with overbearing people - nothing to do with physical torture or grace. Furthermore, the use of cross has become so common as jewelry in popular culture, people wear it because it is perceived as stylish, with no context as a religious symbol, a torture instrument, or a warning signal of unsolicited religious advocacy.


Enough
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 14, 2022 at 8:11 pm
Enough, Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 8:11 pm

"Anti-Semitism runs deep in this community."

I would argue that it is more ignorance than anti-semitism at the root of this issue. Sure the Nazi's appropriated an ancient symbol, actually more than one, to be a symbol for their cause. Should that wipe out thousands of years of meaning for a cultural group that used it long before Facist Germany? I don't believe so. You mention the confederate flag in comparison, can you tell us what group used this flag, or a very close derivative, prior to the confederacy? What other meaning did it have prior to the md 1800's.

People who are not willing to understand that symbols and beliefs have history and meaning beyond their limited understand are doing everyone an injustice. This would have made a great opportunity to educate people on the historic meaning of the symbol long before the Nazi's took it and twisted it. It is always better to open peoples minds than to shutter them. Pulling the symbol and the understanding of the history of it is like burning a book because you find the contents offensive.


John R. Ellis
Registered user
Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jun 14, 2022 at 9:27 pm
John R. Ellis, Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 9:27 pm

So instead of tainted by white privilege, this discussion is now antisemitic? If anything, giving Nazis exclusive cultural ownership of the swastika is anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist, anti-Jainism, anti-Navajo, etc.


JS
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 14, 2022 at 11:54 pm
JS, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Jun 14, 2022 at 11:54 pm

My daughter's summer camp was ruined because of three tiny tiles that had never bothered anyone for almost a century? .It would be hilarious if it wasn't also so sad.


matt from the block
Registered user
Atherton: West of Alameda
on Jun 17, 2022 at 7:40 am
matt from the block, Atherton: West of Alameda
Registered user
on Jun 17, 2022 at 7:40 am

This entire “controversy” is a perfect example of why so many people - not just Trumpers - are fed up. We literally canceled summer camp for 1000(!) kids bc a few hysterical, uneducated people couldn’t or wouldn’t bother to learn the history and true meaning of these symbols.

And their “principled stand” to remove the scourge of 3 tiles that predate Hitler by decades … well that ends up offending millions and millions of people of color who actually revere those symbols.

Like previous posters said, it would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.


Menlo Park Mom
Registered user
Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jun 17, 2022 at 5:58 pm
Menlo Park Mom, Menlo Park: University Heights
Registered user
on Jun 17, 2022 at 5:58 pm

Former teacher, raising inter-faith kids. I think if the Duveneks were alive today, they may have held an informative talk from a local expert (Stanford or the Asian Art Museum) for board and staff. After some further thought and discussion, I imagine they would have wanted a board and staff joint (or whole community) vote. I could imagine Josephine teaching the kids about it, too, and allowing them to vote. The conclusion to remove it may have been the same, but I think the decision would have been more informed and less emotional. The fact that the leadership was in transition during this time, added to the challenges of resolving the issue in a timely manner, and the unfortunate fall-out. It is too bad that the children and families will miss the summer programming, but I am confident that Hidden Villa will recover and move forward.


GK
Registered user
another community
on Jun 29, 2022 at 8:08 am
GK, another community
Registered user
on Jun 29, 2022 at 8:08 am

There is more to this story. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle) while he was in a German prison. In the entire book, there is not a single instance where Hitler used the word Swastika. He always used the word Hakenkruez. No where in Nazi literature was there any reference to the word Swastika. Jewish organizations, scholars, publications and the mainstream media in the English speaking world as well the rest of the world used words like Hakenkreuz or Hooked Cross to identify the origin of the appropriated Nazi symbol. Swastika was never in the picture.

2 billion followers of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Indigenous traditions have used the Swastika for more than 11,000 years of recorded history. Today, just like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Dharmic traditions are not localized in Asia. We are everywhere. There is a need to differentiate the Swastika from the Hooked Cross (Hakenkreuz), a uniquely German symbol inspired by its Christian ethos. There is a need to set the record straight, heal the wounds of the past and combat hatred everywhere it raises its ugly head. But an innocent and auspicisious symbol, loved by the entire world for millenia, should not be the casualty of poor scholarship, irresponsible journalism and blind belief. I urge my fellow Americans to rise up against hate, while being firmly rooted in TRUTH.


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