By Nawal Rajeh, Arrupe House, Baltimore 2006
“With everything going on in our streets and in the world, we need a Peace Camp, even more now than we did ten years ago when we started.” These were the words of my JVC-year supervisor and co-founder of Peace Camp, Ralph Moore, as he spoke to parents whose children were enrolled in our 10th annual summer camp. Heads all over the room nodded in agreement as he explained that what we were doing was urgent, important and desperately needed.
Ralph Moore has been a community organizer and activist in Baltimore his entire life. He was one of the first African American students to integrate Loyola High School and spent his teenage years protesting racial injustice at home and the Vietnam War abroad. In 2006, when I started my Jesuit Volunteer year, Ralph was the Director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center, working on community outreach, joblessness and youth programming. The Center had been built by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an African American order of nuns, who had opened the school in 1828, a time when it was illegal to educate children of slaves in Maryland.
I came to JVC and was to learn community organizing under Ralph’s direction and be the Assistant Director of the Community Center. I had studied Peace in college and am the daughter of immigrant-parents who fled their country, Lebanon, during a 16-year civil war. When we were looking for a summer camp idea during my JVC year, teaching peace seemed to be the most logical idea to both of us. The year was 2007 and the homicide rate in Baltimore was one of the highest it had been in recent years. Ironically, the day I broke up my first fight in the gym, which was between two third graders, happened to also be the four-year anniversary of the Iraq war. The coincidence seemed chilling that solving problems with violence was not only a childhood strategy, but also a local and national one. Could we take on teaching that another way was possible?
That first year, we set out to learn from other peace camps- notably the one run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Pittsburgh, PA. We expanded their model in a way we felt worked for our context. That included six weeks of a free summer day camp that neighborhood youth could walk to and escape the summer heat. Inside our doors there would be free breakfast, lunch and healthy snacks, a weekly field trip, art and music classes, and two weekly swimming sessions. Each week focused on a different “peace hero” and lesson plans focused on themes around respecting ourselves, nature and others, as well as forgiveness and communication. We stressed literacy through daily reading and journaling exercises. This initial model evolved over the years as we learned from parents, campers, and teachers about what was working. Ten summers later we continue to have a weekly peace hero- these heroes are people of all ages, races, and genders who have fought for positive change in their communities. In some cases, the kids have even gotten to meet living peace heroes such as Van Jones, Betty and JoAnn Robinson (involved in Freedom Summer), and this year, Destiny Watford–the 20-year old Baltimorean who organized to stop the country’s largest trash incinerator from moving into her neighborhood.
We also have developed “Peace Studios” as a main part of our curriculum. The idea behind studios is that there are many ways to make peace and to both learn and practice the skills that help to create a life that is fulfilling and healthy. Campers can choose from a number of studios that our staff and volunteers offer, and are always excited to be given this choice. They then showcase what they have learned at our end-of-summer Community Celebration. Studios in the past have included everything from yoga, photography, cooking, capoeira, debate, and African dance. Our camp currently serves over 100 kids in two East Baltimore locations, ages 6-13. Once campers have “aged-out” of our program, they are encouraged to join the city’s YouthWorks program and work for our summer camp as Jr. Counselors. There were eight high school students who did that this past year– several of them have been part of our camp all ten summers. They continue to learn about peace and justice issues that are important to them as well as have unique opportunities to go on college tours, field trips, and work on their job development and leadership skills, all while imparting some of the knowledge they have learned over the years to the younger campers. They even run their own peace studios that include chess, yoga, comic book drawing, basketball, and singing.
Teaching Peace, Teaching Justice
The camp has a lot of JVC’s four values woven into it. One of the most important aspects of our camp is for the staff to build together with the kids a community built on respect, care, and restorative principles. Like restorative justice practices, we believe that each person in our community is valuable and cannot be discarded. We have never removed a child from camp due to behavior or any other issues, and I think this has been a powerful testament to kids about their worth and place in our community. Likewise, we stress internal peace and begin each day with breathing exercises and a peace prayer. Campers also have the opportunity to participate in yoga, meditation and reflection exercises throughout the summer.
Having tools to deal with anger and interpersonal conflict is an important life skill that is often not taught in schools. Social and emotional learning take the back burner to more “pertinent” subjects on standardized tests. At our camp, we prioritize this kind of learning. Campers also learn about advocacy and have written letters to the mayor, attended rallies and protests, spoken to reporters and on the radio about things they care about and went to the White House and the Inner Harbor to sing songs about peace and teach others about our peace heroes. They have advocated for the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese leader who was under house arrest, and perhaps most notably when Baltimore city was set to make budget cuts to the neighborhood walk-to pool, they successfully fought to keep the pool open, and won, not once, but three summers in a row. This was not without toil. They made so much noise one summer that the entire camp was invited to the conference room of the head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to discuss the issue. They were able to hear from city officials and directly ask questions to them and have their concerns heard.
Looking Toward the Future
We constantly remind the kids that they are the future of our camp and future peace heroes! I expect that in not-so-many years, some of our current high school students will run the camp. Our immediate next steps are to explore expanding to a third location in West Baltimore as well as offering an advanced learning opportunity overseas for our Jr. Counselor high school students. We are currently looking for funding to take them on a five-day learning trip to Costa Rica, a country that voluntarily disbanded its military and has the only university in the world dedicated solely to peace. We plan to focus this trip on cultural exchange and social justice and feel that this experience will be incredibly transformative for our youth.
Being a part of Peace Camp has changed me in many ways over the years. I have learned the true wisdom in thinking globally and acting locally. I have made connections that will last a lifetime, including my friendship with Ralph Moore who continues to be an inspiration and a great mentor to me. In 2011, Ralph decided that due to my dedication, he would rename the camp after me. It was a huge surprise! It was our 5thannual camp and I was the JV who kept returning each summer. In many ways, it was Peace Camp that led me down my current path of working with youth and continuing to teach justice, peace and advocacy. In 2013, Ralph and the staff and I decided to incorporate the camp under a non-profit dedicated to the ideals of the camp. We have staff that has worked with us almost since the beginning- some starting off as volunteers and returning year after year. We call ourselves By Peaceful Means (BPM) and are currently fiscally sponsored by Strong City Baltimore. Through BPM I have been able to train social justice-based organizations in conflict transformation techniques that help them to more effectively do their work. I am currently a PhD candidate in conflict resolution and hope to do research and future work on the ways youth can positively impact their cities.
It seems urgent, as Ralph said to our parents this summer, that Peace Camp continue in this time of increasing racial hostility and violence in our city, country and world. One of the neighborhoods where we hold camp in East Baltimore has seen two mass shootings in the months following camp and both impacted children. These shootings did not make national headline news. They are the product of years of neglect, disinvestment, and poverty. Truly believing in the power of community and education and putting our efforts fully into that work seems to be the only way to remain hopeful in the current political climate. Beyond being a place that is safe, uplifting, and enriching, we know that Peace Camp is truly fun and we have always believed that if we meet no other goal, the children should be able to come into our doors and be fully children. I know undoubtedly, that this camp has filled my life with incredible joy and I look forward to the next 10 years and beyond. I especially look forward to being a part of kids’ lives and seeing all that they continue to contribute to the world.