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Monadnock Profiles: Hancock man using voice, experiences to make change happen

  • Doug Sutherland is the executive director of Brantwood Camp in Greenfield. BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Doug Sutherland speaks at a protest in Peterborough earlier this summer. Ben Conant photos / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Doug Sutherland is the executive director of Brantwood Camp in Greenfield. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/2/2020 3:03:57 PM

Doug Sutherland vividly remembers making the most important promise of his life.

In Maryland for a work conference, Sutherland found himself standing in a slave graveyard on a former plantation. Something about the moment struck him, and he knelt down and made a pledge to himself.

“I’m going to make sure my voice is heard,” Sutherland remembers thinking.

Sutherland knows his message is important. As a Black man living in Hancock, Sutherland understands when it comes to the topic of racial inequality he can speak from experience and lend a voice to a movement that feels different this time around.

“The goal is to have a conversation,” Sutherland said. “I decided I will be that Black voice.”

That pledge came before George Floyd was murdered at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, prior to Breonna Taylor’s killing in her Louisville apartment and before the recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin – before this summer’s national call for change.

But when you live in a world where people who look like you are unjustifiably killed, there’s a point where enough is enough. And Sutherland wasn’t about to keep silent. Even if it meant putting himself out there for all to see.

Sutherland wants to make sure everyone knows just how important it is to keep the conversation moving forward about racial equality. It’s why he’s spoken at rallies in Peterborough and is one of the members of the Hancock Community Conversations on Race Group that has been organizing the weekly peaceful protests, and is a leading figure the local discussion series Talking About Race. Because it isn’t just about how the world views him that is of concern to Sutherland, but more of the future of world his 9-year-old daughter Della has to grow up in.

“She’s the only one who has darker skin and different hair in her school,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland has found that the best way for he and his wife, Kate Johnson, to talk with their daughter about what is happening in the world today is to be honest and proceed at her pace.

“We try to make those conversations as open as possible,” Sutherland said. It’s not always easy, but things of this magnitude are not always going to be.

Sutherland loves living in the Monadnock region, calling it his home since he first moved to the area on a whim in 1999 with only two bags of clothes for a job as a camp counselor at Sargent Camp. He had never even been to New England, let alone New Hampshire.

“I hit Peterborough and I was like ‘wow, this is a postcard,’” Sutherland said.

At the time he was just looking for something different. Outside of college, Sutherland had spent almost his entire life in the St. Louis, Missouri area and wanted to see a different part of the country. He had a friend living in Maine and another in Seattle, so his original plan was to spend a year in the Northeast and then a year on the west coast.

“I said let me go see if I like the east or west,” Sutherland said. “My plan was to work with kids outside.”

He never made it out west because as that summer job at Sargent Camp was coming to an end, he was asked to stay on for the school program. He didn’t really have much of a plan after the summer, so he figured “Why not?” One year then turned into 10, as he worked his way up from camp counselor to camp director.

But it wasn’t just the work that sold him on New Hampshire. It was a trip down Windy Row during that first fall, with the colors and beauty of the foliage on full display.

“We had fall in St. Louis, but not like this,” Sutherland said. “I fell in love with New Hampshire because of fall.”

Changes in the way that Sargent Camp operated left Sutherland unsure of his future there, so he made the decision to take an assistant director job at Camp Nashoba in Maine. His wife was pregnant with Della and wanted more security, so for five years he essentially moved his life to Maine for the summers, while still maintaining the home he shared with Kate in Sharon. He wanted to remain in the area, but it was a good job, so he made it work at the time.

But the pull to be in charge of a camp always remained and when the opportunity to lead Camp Starfish in Rindge came up he jumped at the opportunity. It was different than what he was used to as it is for children who have difficulty finding success in traditional settings.

“I was looking at it as how can I keep increasing my learning,” Sutherland said.

He can’t say enough good things about the camp and what it does for the children who attend, but Sutherland said it just wasn’t the right fit for him.

That’s when he decided to open his own business centered around staff training, team building and diversity.

“I was getting tired of doing what the book said,” Sutherland said.

Through his business, he got connected with the folks at the Barbara C. Harris Center Camp in Greenfield. The director had recently left and they were looking for someone with experience to help recruit and train staff. He didn’t know anything about working at a faith-based camp, but he did know how to get ready for the camp season.

“One of my favorite things about camp is preparing the staff to work with kids,” Sutherland said.

And the partnership worked as he spent a number of summers at the Barbara C. Harris Center Camp, starting as interim director and eventually getting the job permanently.

He stayed in that role through last summer before landing the head job at Brantwood Camp. He spent the final week of last summer at Brantwood, starting the planning process for this year. He was excited about all the possibilities and that excitement lasted until May, when the coronavirus pandemic forced Sutherland to make one of the most difficult decisions of his professional life: canceling summer camp.

“My 2020 summer turned into what it has become,” Sutherland said. “Not the summer I’ve been used to the last 20 years.”

While Sutherland missed camp this year, he really felt for the kids. Over his two decades in the camp world, he knows how important the summer is for all of them.

But it was a decision that had to be made for the sake of everyone’s safety and it just means that he has to make the summer of 2021 better than any one before it.

Growing up in St. Louis, Sutherland didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He never really thought about college, let alone what he wanted to do for a career. He eventually decided to continue his education, getting accepted to Lake Forest College in Illinois.

“I wanted to get out of St. Louis for at least a little bit,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland admits his initial impression of college wasn’t the best and he wanted to leave after just two “horrible” weeks. At the urging of a mentor he decided to stay.

Even after he made the decision to stick it out, Sutherland had no idea what he wanted to do so he took classes in everything. He didn’t pick a major until his senior year and the only degree he was on track to receive was in English literature, so his senior year was filled with a lot of reading.

“I didn’t really have a plan,” he said.

But it was his internship during those college summers that put him on the camp path, even if he didn’t know it at the time. He worked with Eco-Act at the Missouri Botanical Garden, teaching kids about ecology and environmental science. After graduation, he spent a summer and a semester as a residence hall director at Millikin University in Illinois before a permanent job with Eco-Act opened up. He spent almost five years with the program before realizing “it was time for me to leave the Midwest,” Sutherland said. And that’s when he came to New Hampshire.

Sutherland has lived in Sharon, Peterborough and now owns a home in Hancock, the town he first made his way to 20 years ago.

He worked at Harlow’s Pub for two years to make some extra money, and it was there he met Kate. He has loved his two decades in the Monadnock region, but it hasn’t always been easy being a man of color. He’s been called the N-word, followed by an employee in a local store and has questioned the validity of being pulled over late at night.

“But this isn’t new to Black people,” Sutherland said. “I think about it every time I get into the car. That’s what I live with every day.”

Sutherland knows it can happen anywhere. The recent uprising in the area has shown Sutherland that people don’t have to be Black to want change.

“One of the things I’ve learned about this area is that people that don’t look like me, think that same way as me,” he said.

The movement for change feels different this time around, Sutherland said, and he hopes it truly leads to a better future for all.

“We need to keep talking about this,” he said. And his greatest fear is that people will stop talking about it before the necessary progress and change happens.

“I will go to the protests. I will speak up… because someone has to,” Sutherland said.

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