For me social change is a primary motivation, and I work with young people as a form of activism. Some people advocate for public policy changes, some lead demonstrations, others build community to meet needs in their neighborhoods…There are many paths to take toward the same goal, and welcoming young people to join the movement seems like one of the most effective. However, some would fairly argue that the best way to work with youth is over the long term, building ongoing relationships where they live. And we don’t do that with our work at Peacebuilders Camp. We have campers from different places for one brief week and may never see them again. So the question is: if the goal is social change through youth, why a summer camp?
Our mission is clear– a transformative summer camp experience. A summer camp is a magical place. Camp life is just so fertile for transformations, epiphanies, turning points, “aha!” moments–whatever your word for it, everybody’s had them. Summer 2014 was the fourth year of camp and a particularly powerful one for helping me put my finger on what makes summer camp such a magical thing.
Why summer camp?
1. Leaving home and family means campers can reinvent themselves.
No expectations from family who know you well and friends you’ve grown up with! Each session we find out a few campers who back home are described as incredibly shy, but you’d never guess it in the camp house.
2. Those who feel like the odd one out back home find a community at camp.
Whether it’s unusual values and beliefs, appearances, or interests, campers from many backgrounds find friends at camp, and that self confidence boost goes a long way. And when campers go back home and take a stand in a class debate on an important issue, they can remember that feeling and remember that there are like-minded people in the struggle with them.
3. The courage it takes to leave home puts campers in a courageous mindset that lends itself to openness to new ideas and experiences.
Months of anticipation about leaving home (sometimes for the first time) means that in the first few days, campers have already conquered a huge fear. They’re outside their comfort zones and ready for the world. So when new ideas about human rights are presented, campers are ripe to leave their mental comfort zones as well.
4. Since “what happens at camp stays at camp,” campers feel free to take risks.
Family members full of suggestions and expectations aren’t watching, so campers can practice independence and test out new identities. It’s more than a confidence booster. Campers are asking questions. Who am I? What are my gifts? How can I change the world? The answers are often different than family’s suggestions, and it’s hard to hear the inner voice without some distance and time away to nurture it.
5. It’s an intentional space.
Maybe a camper has heard about social justice issues many times but hasn’t had the chance to dig deeper and learn more. Maybe a camper has never heard of the issues. Either way they know they’re coming to camp to learn. It’s time set aside with a purpose and a goal.
If the summer camp experience is magically transformative, why not channel that experience to point youth toward social justice? There is so much excellent work for social change going on, but I know that educating the next generation is a long-term strategy. We’re thinking ahead and thinking big when we imagine the multiplied impact of all these campers becoming powerful social change agents. I believe in the summer camp model. I believe in the power of creating a space that can be the turning point for a young person’s understanding of the world.