It’s Monday morning on a warm July day, and the A/C is out of commission. You might expect a group of several dozen kids – ages 6 to 13 – gathered upstairs at the 29th Street Community Center to be a bit cranky or restless, possibly both. Yet, as they are called to gather in a circle along with a half-dozen adults at 9:30 a.m., the mood in the room is a mixture of controlled excitement and something approaching serenity.
“OK, I want you to get into groups of three with someone wearing the same color as you!” calls out the energetic woman in charge of this gathering. “Now, talk in your groups about one fun thing you did this weekend.” A few minutes later, she calls the group back to attention: “Who would like to show us and your partner your Peace Camp handshake?”
Welcome to Peace Camp, the main program of By Peaceful Means, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City Baltimore founded by longtime community activist Ralph Moore and directed by Nawal Rajeh, who was guiding the group of campers in the meeting circle – a ritual that kicks off summer camp for each day of the three-week session. After the gathering circle, campers head off to outdoor play, literacy-oriented projects such as journaling, or other activities.
Peaceful problem solving and conflict resolution are at the heart of Peace Camp’s approach to youth development, and each week a new “peace hero” is celebrated. Past heroes have included Nelson Mandela, Myanmar’s Ang San Suu Kyi, and Tererai Trent (the Zimbabwean woman whose life story was featured in the book Half the Sky). This week, instead of a single peace hero, they are focusing on the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to learning about peace heroes, campers are encouraged to speak up and advocate for themselves on issues ranging from school funding to keeping city pools open.
“The idea is that peace is integrated into everything we do – it’s not some separate thing we learn about,” says Rajeh, a community organizer and former teacher who brought the Peace Camp concept to Baltimore over a decade ago after taking part in a similar camp in Pennsylvania.
A centerpiece of Peace Camp is what Moore and Rajeh call “Peace Studios,” mixed-age groupings two days a week where the youngsters are empowered to choose from a variety of activities ranging from computer coding to cooking to photography to “telling your story” through poetry, video, or other media. “They are learning all sorts of skills that lend themselves to a more peaceful world,” Rajeh says.
Taleah Edwards, 16, who uses the name Aeon, started as a camper back in 2015 and has been coming
back to Peace Camp as a junior counselor Youth Worker every year since; this year she is teaching yoga. Aeon, a Barclay Elementary/Middle School graduate and rising junior at Baltimore City College High School, says what makes Peace Camp a special place is that “We try to teach the kids to be proud of who they are, and that things can be solved in a better way [than fighting].”
That message seems to be getting across for campers like Zacharia Grovogui, who at age 8 has already been attending Peace Camp for several years. He says he likes the camp because he can choose which studio activity to do – his favorite is coding. Also, he says, “We learn about famous people. We learned about Tererai Trent, who buried her dreams, and they came true. She visualized it, and my mom always tells me to visualize things.” Jerni Dajer, 6, enjoys the mindfulness exercises, explaining, “You need to close your eyes and keep your brain wide awake.” Her favorite things about camp? “I love to eat, and I love to play outside!”
Ralph Moore recalls that when Peace Camp first came to the Community Center – shortly after the building was reopened under Strong City Baltimore’s operation – some of the campers, from the Barclay School next door, were known for not getting along with each other. Within days, the tensions between those kids had vanished.
“This camp is needed more than ever,” says Moore, a Baltimore native who grew up in Sandtown-Winchester and ran the community center at St. Frances Academy, where Peace Camp began in 2006 and where a second three-week camp session will be held later this summer. “Everything is telling kids to fight: video games, movies, TV. Somewhere, something has to tell them it’s OK to use words instead of fists, it’s OK to be peacemakers in your homes, churches, neighborhoods, communities.”
The connection with Strong City began in 2012, when By Peaceful Means needed a new fiscal sponsor, and Moore naturally turned to the organization he knew had done good community-based work for decades. “I’d known of Greater Homewood for about 40 years,” Moore recalls, using Strong City’s former name. (Moore received Strong City’s Volunteer of the Year award in 2017, recognizing his lifetime of service in many capacities.)
On Monday of the last week of camp, as students and teachers gather in the circle, they talk about what’s ahead for the week – closing ceremony on Wednesday, family meal on Thursday, field trip to go swimming on Friday. Before the group disperses to their classrooms, Rajeh asks everyone to “think of one positive thought for your day” and then asks them to “Freeze!” – a mindfulness exercise in which the kids spend about 30 seconds in quiet reflection and meditation. They then conclude with a call-and-response that summarize the Peace Camp philosophy:
“I am covered in peace. Surrounded by peace. Peace protects me. Peace supports me. Peace is in me. Peace to all human beings.”