A Peacebuilding Summer Camp

I woke up Friday morning planning to use this week’s blog post to begin sketching out the user’s guide for my conflict resolution and peacebuilding textbook. By 9.00, I realized I had to do something else first.

Earlier in the year, Gretchen and I had decided to help fund George Mason’s Conflict Resolution Youth Summit, which is a fancy name for a week long summer camp for rising high school juniors and seniors. Because much of my professional self definition grows out of my own experience as a camper and camp counselor, I had planned to attend the whole week.

Alas, given the hubbub of finishing the book and making the trip to Rondine with its program for Italian high school students (see last week’s post ), I could only get to Friday’s sessions.

I was blown away by the quality of the program that Mason students put together for the week. I was blown away even more by the campers who reinforced  plans we have been making at AfP to work with our members to build support among America’s young people, including college and high school students—a topic I will be writing about a lot in the weeks to come.

Sitting there was emotionally powerful for me on two levels. First, I realized that exactly fifty years ago, I was running the Counselor in Training Leadership Program at YMCA Camp Hazen in Connecticut. My four years working there (as well has my years as a Hazen camper) helped me see the need to teach the “whole person,” something that was at the heart of what I did in my years as a college professor. It was hard to miss the  parallels Friday morning, since the campers at the youth summit and my LEAs (as the program is still called) were the same age and showed the same kind of youthful exuberance.

Second and more importantly, like those high school students half a century ago, Mason’s youth summitteers filled me with hope at a time when hope is in short supply if—like me—you do political science and peacebuilding for a living.

What the Campers Learned

Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) also uses the summit as an opportunity for its students to get some valuable experience. Thus, while faculty members had a lot to do with planning the idea of the camp, most of the hard work was done by a team led by  Emma Schmelzer (who just finished her Masters degree) and five other graduate and undergraduate students.

I, of course, had put together my own program at Camp Hazen when I was just about their age.

They put me to shame.

To begin with, they were a lot less nerdy and intellectual than I remember being at that age.

In other words, they made the experience… fun.

At the same time, they packed an amazing amount of conflict resolution material into five short days. The students learned about working on Bill Ury’s third side and did simulations of what it is like to live and work abroad. They got to hear from S-CAR alum and peacebuilder etraordinaire, Bridget Moix, talk about local peacebuilding. They were exposed to the ways the arts get used in conflict resolution work. While I was there, they saw an amazing film,  Fly by Light, about inner city DC high school students who learn about nonviolent communication on a week long trip of their own to West Virginia.

I was only there for the final day. However, it was clear that at least half of the group wants to continue working in the field (see below). And they were a diverse group. More than half of them were students of color. Most came from Northern Virginia, but there was at least one camper from Baltimore and another from Indiana.

In fact, they learned many of the same skills that Camp Hazen emphasizes in the 2019 version of that LEA program that I used to direct—bully prevention, leadership and communication skills, values discovery, public speaking, preventing child abuse, and expanding comfort zones.

And, I was delighted to see that Camp Hazen now includes conflict resolution in its goals for the LEAs. I know I didn’t do so fifty years ago, because the field I now work in really didn’t exist at the time—although every camp counselor had to develop those very (then nameless) skills.

What I Learned

I spent the day listening to and talking with the campers and, at the breakup reception, some of their parents.

It was truly eye opening.

Some of what I learned wasn’t on topic. A hijab-wearing Algerian American warned me that she would be preoccupied during the afternoon because Algeria’s men’s team was playing in the African Cup final during the time I would be speaking. One father talked about his company’s plan to use low orbit satellites to provide broadband coverage to underserved parts of the world; one mother talked about her career as a police officer.

But mostly I learned about how amazing today’s high school students can be and how they can help propel the work I’ve dedicated my life to forward.

I’ve spent most of my post-Camp Hazen life working with college students both in the classroom and as the audience for most of what I’ve written. This was my first time working with younger students in half a century.

So, I learned that my new friend, Patricia Shafer, of NewGen Peacebuilders, that young people between the ages of 14 and 24 not only can do a lot, they are already doing a lot.

Patricia has gotten us at AfP thinking about how we bring young people into our efforts to defuse tensions and find constructive solutions to our conflicts here in the United States.

But, I also learned a lesson Bridget Moix and others have been stressing in recent years. Local peacebuilders often have better answers to their own problems than we outsider experts do.

In this case, “local” doesn’t refer to people in some far away location but to our own young people. Whatever their contribution turns out to be, the have to define it. Our job is to then help them or—in John Paul Lederach’s terms—accompany them.

As I thought back fifty years, I remembered how much I resented older people then telling us what to do. Now, of course, that I’m one of those old people myself, I have to resist the temptation to draw on my years of expertise and tell them what to do.

So, I also got a dose of humility….

Where We Go From Here

Concretely, we are going ahead with Patricia and others to work with existing student groups on high school and college campuses around the country. We’ll also be looking for places in which we could work with our newfound friends among the youth summitteers and others to start students groups where they don’t already exist. Maybe we’ll even ask one of the lovely young people I met this week to speak at AfP’s PeaceCon in the fall at one of our sessions on American peacebuilding.

And I’ll tell the folks at Camp Hazen about what became of their former LEA director and how he is still using what he learned way back when.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.