It was 8 a.m. on June 28, and Spencer Traylor (2008 Maine Seed) and Sarah Stone (a.k.a. Stoney) had an air of calm enthusiasm. Leadership staff had arrived at Camp over the weekend, and there was much to be done before the first cohort of U.S. youth would begin their Seeds of Peace journey.
Sitting on a porch overlooking Pleasant Lake, the 2021 Camp Co-Directors reflected on an entirely different journey that had been underway since November 2020—back when it was far from certain whether Camp was even possible.
There were no vaccines at the time, and none for children on the horizon. Hundreds of questions loomed, but one thing that was fairly clear early on was that if there was going to be a Seeds of Peace Camp in 2021, nearly every aspect of it would need to be examined to meet the needs of an evolving organization, a pandemic, deepening divisions in the U.S., and youth who had spent the past year engaging with the world largely through screens.
Having worked in education systems before and during the pandemic—Stoney with the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem and the New York City Department of Education; Spencer as a high school teacher and community program leader in Maine—they had both witnessed firsthand exactly what many of those challenges looked like for students and educators.
And having both been a part of Seeds of Peace programs—Spencer as a Seed and then as Camp staff member in 2017 and 2019; and Sarah as a Camp counselor in 2014 and graduate of the Jerusalem facilitation course—they also saw the importance of what Camp could offer youth in this moment.
They spoke about why they wanted to take on these roles, the work of preparing a safe, stable environment in an unsteady time, and how Camp 2021 will help American youth meet the most pressing challenges in their communities.
What made you want to take on this role of Camp Co-Director?
Spencer: One, knowing that Seeds is in a period of figuring out what its future going to look like, it felt like an exciting time to jump in and be a part of that kind of on-the-ground work here at Camp—to be able to support that and try to hold on to what needs to be held on to, and to figure out what needs to change and update with the times.
And after years of talking about how great it would be to have a Maine session at Camp, this summer was an opportunity to finally focus on and develop that idea, and to think about how we can build up programs so as to support Campers when they leave. The international program is very complex and challenging for so many reasons, and in a normal year that takes up a lot of space for planning, so to have a summer where can think critically about the U.S. program felt like a pretty exciting thing to be a part of. [Editor’s note: Because of the pandemic, 2021 Camp will not have international campers. Session I will be for youth from across the Northeastern U.S.; Session II will be for Maine youth only.]
Stoney: I have spent my career working with Israeli and Palestinian youth in Jerusalem and with youth of different racial backgrounds locally in NYC. It is incredibly powerful to be here and work with youth from across the Northeast, which is also where I grew up, at this moment in this country’s political, social, and economic reality, and at this inflection point for youth who are coming out of a year of awareness of injustice, change, and dependence on social media for communication. We have a real opportunity to meet American youth where they are, to see themselves and each other differently, and to work alongside them so they leave here ready and willing to continue the work back home.
Take us back to November 2020, when Camp planning began in earnest. What were those days like?
Stoney: I basically did a listening tour with directors of camps that were open in 2020 to find out if this was actually possible in a COVID environment. When it comes to working with youth, especially at a camp, health and safety must be No.1. So I focused on upgrades that needed to happen, and on trying to understand the behavioral impact of COVID on running a residential program.
The second focus was on what it is like to continue a legacy and build community after extensive organizational leadership transition and having a programmatic break due to COVID. I asked others and myself lots of questions. And I’m still asking lots of questions.
Spencer: For every piece of Camp, there are a hundred things to take into consideration, from how we will use the space—for example, when and where are people taking showers, because you can’t have too many people in a shower house when taking COVID precautions—to philosophically aligning as co-directors and considering all the campers and staff who are coming in. There have been a lot of good additions.
Can you talk about some of those good changes?
Spencer: It’s been a really tough year for mental health, and throughout the year youth have been developing different strategies for dealing with that, like virtual therapy sessions. We made sure that there is more Wi-Fi access for counselors and that we’re creating dedicated spaces for campers to continue those sessions so they don’t feel like completely dropping out of that support while they’re here.
Stoney: We’re also communicating with parents more, sending weekly emails with reminders that really normalize those types of support and make sure youth feel connected if they need to.
And we’re putting time in the schedule for community action. For an hour each day, youth within geographical proximity will have space to figure out together how to apply what they’re discovering here back home. Hopefully they’ll leave here with a sense of responsibility and a few options for tools in a toolbox they can use back home for a community action project.
Another thing that’s been driving me, as an individual and an educator, are the ways in which the U.S. program needs to learn from the international program, and vice versa. Where are the intersections programmatically of what youth are facing in these different contexts, and how can we at Camp share those learnings and unlearnings?
Could you give examples of that?
Spencer: One area is that the idea of violent conflict, which has always been at the center of the international session dialogue, but not always U.S. dialogue.
As a camper in 2008, I remember coming in from Maine dialogue sessions (sessions were divided geographically), and the international campers would be asking, “What could you possibly be talking about in your dialogues? We’re here to talk about violence and conflict.” But with the level of access to social media that youth have now—especially with all the learning that happened on social media over the last year—campers are coming in having seen very real, violent conflict that happens in the United States, and the potential for even more violent conflict if we can’t figure out better ways for communicating with each other.
So that’s where I think framing some of the work that we are doing as getting ahead of bigger problems down the road. How we communicate through these differences—our identities, political beliefs, religions—is another way to learn from the international sessions.
How have you been building your model of leadership as co-directors?
Spencer: We’re in part leaning on the experiences of people who have been in leadership positions and asking how to co-direct in ways that will be most effective for ourselves and for campers. We’re also figuring out where our strengths are and how we balance each other out and what we need to be doing together versus individually.
Stoney: Agreed. And I think that this is a model that is necessary in this type of environment. We always have co-facilitation in dialogue, co-counselors in bunks, co-leads in activities. Youth can and should be exposed to different humans leading and different ways of leadership. Seeds of Peace has always tried to offer youth a myriad of personalities and models of leadership, with exposure to them throughout the Camp day, and hopefully throughout their lives, and I’m excited for that to become institutionalized structurally.
Spencer: It feels central to the Seeds model for this type of leadership to exist, where we’re able to model how we work through conflict. We’re coming in with our different identities, different lived experiences, our different perspectives, experiences in education and approaches to working with youth, and a lot of our work is figuring out how to work through those things and how to align those different perspectives. That’s what we’re asking Camp and staff to do, so it feels appropriate that we’re doing that as well.
In what ways do you hope to help youth meet this moment in the U.S., and wherever they go next in the world?
Spencer: I think a big part of it is doing what Camp does. To me, the opportunity of Camp has always been to learn in a new way, to learn from the people who are around you, to learn how to communicate, to ask questions, to figure out who you are relative to other people in a room and who you are together in a group. In a normal year that’s a really powerful thing Seeds of Peace offers, and this year it’s incredibly important because students haven’t gotten as much socialization as they normally would have through school environments.
Stoney: I think that because of our political context—including the language around the 2020 election and the capitol riots on January 6—we have an opportunity now in the American context to be explicit about our conflict, our fears, and our misunderstanding across various lines of difference. And knowing that youth are coming in being more exposed to what’s going on and having words to talk about conflict in the U.S., I think things are ripe for the kind of conversations that we offer here.
Also, this entire camp environment is a holistic residential experience where youth can choose how they want to be seen. For a young person to come here and live in an environment that is giving them the opportunity to have courageous conversations and to be seen for how they want to be seen is something I’m excited to navigate in this moment.
What do you hope Campers will walk away with this summer?
Spencer: I hope campers walk away with a sense of openness to new ideas, new people, and an understanding of how big the world is—that the context they understand is bigger than they know it to be, and there are different ways of looking at things. This Camp to me is very much the start of what will hopefully be a lifelong process of curiosity—of coming to understand who they are and how they interact with the world, of building a sense of confidence to really be themselves, and of being able to accept others for who they are.
Stoney: I want campers to leave here knowing what it feels like to be seen for the way you want to be seen in the world across lines of difference, and to know that’s what they deserve in every single context. They shouldn’t need to come Pleasant Lake in Maine to feel loved for who they are, not only by their peers, but by adults and structures in the country in which they live. I want them to leave here really knowing what that feels like, and with the skills to demand and expect it.