Camp Harmony: Kids from Different Income Levels and Backgrounds Learn to Embrace their Similarities
The fourth- and fifth-graders walk downhill to a clearing, touching bay leaves for good luck before they enter. As they settle in, a tall, red- haired white man begins to sing a folk song, but it soon morphs into a rap — with vocal duties shared by two young black men.
The children of various races sit close together — listening, singing, swaying and clapping to a song they know by heart. “M is for mutual respect,” they sing. “O is for open-mindedness. S is for self-respect. A is for attitude. I is for individuality. C is for community.” The music and lyrics are infectious; and although the rhythm changes, the kids never miss a beat.
As their week on the outskirts of Napa is wrapping up, they are rapping away to the theme song of Camp Mosaic, the program that brings together children from three Bay Area elementary schools: one upper middle class, one middle class and one lower-income. The children for this particular week come from Park Day School, a private elementary school in Oakland; Carl B. Munck Elementary, an Oakland public school; and St. Elizabeth Seton School, a Palo Alto Catholic school.
Spontaneously, the students form a conga line, and their exuberance is still evident as they sit on a tarp to listen to Mosaic Project Executive Director Lara Mendel quote Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of highly committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Founded in 2000 by Mendel and Margaret Hodder, the Berkeley-based Mosaic Project has its five-day, four-night diversity camp sessions from early May through the first full week of June. Besides getting a chance to learn from one another, the children get mentored by their cabin leaders, high school students who have gone through Mosaic’s Youth Leadership Institute/Cabin Leader program.
“I like working with kids because they’re not brainwashed yet,” says Katiana Carey-Simms, 15, of Oakland School. “It’s the only place where I can feel appreciated.” Renaldo Rodrigues, 19, who attended Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy in San Francisco, is in his third year as a cabin leader. “The only real, true way in the world to have peace is to be friends and to teach others about equality,” he says. “But don’t just talk about it: Do it. Make it real.”
When the kids arrive each Monday, they are divided into cabin groups, who live together, and share groups, who do activities together. A third group forms when everyone gathers. “We ask them, ‘Why do you think we did that?’ And they’ll say, ‘Because you wanted us to meet new people and make new friends.’ And we’ll say, ‘Yeah! That’s the idea,’ ” Mendel says. “Then we ask them, ‘How can you make someone feel welcome?’ They’ll say, ‘Smile, introduce yourself, scoot over to them.’ These are the ways you make someone feel included. We ask them to remember that throughout the week.
“We tell them that your feeling welcome is tied to everybody feeling welcome. That’s what we’re about. We’re creating a world where everyone can feel welcome. If we can do it here and start with ourselves, we can bring it out to our schools … in our communities … in the world.”
The larger objective is for the kids to forget their socioeconomic backgrounds and view each other’s similarities instead of differences, says Mendel, 35, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology from Stanford. “We want them to see that there are no differences,” she says, “and for them to love themselves, because if they love themselves then they will love others.”
It is not unusual for the kids to arrive at camp with feelings of prejudice, primarily because they may not have interacted with others outside their race or socioeconomic background, Mendel says. One recent class was all Latino, and the teacher told Mendel that she didn’t think the kids had stereotypes against whites or blacks. “I said, ‘Well, … I can guarantee that they do,’ ” Mendel recalls.
Mendel knew that one boy in the class had negative stereotypes of blacks. After a week at the camp, he was asked how he felt. “He said, ‘So-and-so in my cabin (a black youth) is practically my new best friend,’ ” Mendel recalls. “At the end, he made tons of friendships with people of all races.
“This happens all the time. We have blacks saying they can never be friends with whites or a white girl saying she didn’t think she could be friends with people from different races.” The games and activities are designed to dispel prejudice. “Categories” is a game in which each of the kids call out something that makes each person different. One child may yell out race, another music or religion or gender.
“By talking about our differences, they see that we are really all the same,” Mendel says. In “Seat Switching,” players learn ways they can help everyone in a group feel welcome. In “Empathy Role-Play,” participants act in skits in which they switch footwear, so they literally know how it feels to walk in someone else’s shoes.
All week, Mosaic Project staff and cabin leaders wear a necklace of seven clay beads, with six small beads and one larger one. During one group project, the children make beads. In the largest bead, they place a tiny redwood seed, but are not told why. During the closing ceremony, they are each given a redwood seed, then told to look around and realize that giant redwood trees surround them.
“The tall redwoods that you see began from tiny seeds, just like the ones you are holding in your hands,” Mendel tells them. “And small individuals can make big changes.”
A Mosaic staffer tells a story about the Mosaic woods. In the story, a small girl receives a necklace with seven beads from her grandmother, handed to her in a plain brown paper bag. The woman explains that the necklace means her granddaughter is a member of Team Mosaic. By wearing it, she makes a personal commitment toward world peace. The six small beads, the grandmother says, represent the Mosaic values, while the large, center bead represents the girl’s promise to make the world a better place.
At the story’s conclusion, cabin leaders pull out a brown paper bag and give each student a seven-bead necklace. Then they gather into sharing group circles, a candle is lit and they are encouraged to discuss what they gained from attending the weeklong session. “I learned not to tease people or be mean to them,” says Omar Ortega, who attends St. Elizabeth. “I learned to empathize.”
Munck student Carla Broadnax adds: “I learned about conflict resolution. I learned I can stop having a bad attitude and instead have a positive attitude.” “Differences are important,” says Sophie Smyer, 11, of Park Day School. “Being interconnected is important. You can change the world. Respect others and think about someone else’s point of view.”
John Robertson, 19, a project intern who attends Menlo College in Atherton, is overcome with emotion. “You guys rock!” he says. “You are the coolest young group. You’re all going to take back what you learned to your schools and make a difference in the world.” Earlier in the week, the kids were given a set of blank index cards. Before going to bed each night, the kids were instructed to write their feelings, experiences and the people they value on the cards.
The cards were collected, and at the end of the week the cabin leader had compiled the index cards into a Value Book for each student. The book also includes a list of five steps for conflict resolution, as well as healthy ways to express feelings when upset or angry. Also tucked in are a couple of blank pages. The students gather in a final circle and sing the Mosaic song. When the ceremony ends, camp concludes, tears flow and there are long hugs — children who did not know each other when camp began are now close friends.
The students fill the blank pages of their books with each other’s addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. A bell is rung to show appreciation for the community that was created during the week. Then, like a giant wave at a baseball game, one-by-one, everyone quickly turns to their left in a show of support for diversity. “Eighteen seconds!” someone yells. “That’s the fastest we’ve ever done it! A record!”
“Take a look around,” says Mendel. “You came into Mosaic on Monday, and remember what you were thinking about, everything you did all week and what you learned. Go out and share everything you learned and make peace in this world.” A staffer starts playing his guitar and everyone sings: “Building strength and unity, making a mosaic of our community. Helping the world to live in harmony … ” And the kids walk arm-in-arm, up the hill to their buses, which will take them back to their communities.