It’s the night of the open mic at Power of Hope youth camp. We all gather in the Commonweal meadow. We do a quick “family group” check in, where campers answer questions about how the week has gone so far. Then we gather up in a clump and start a procession to the Great Hall. We play some music to go along—a drum-infused soundtrack in our procession. We arrive at The Great Hall, which is so beautiful because some staff and campers set up a display of all the art made during the week. There are masks, vinyl records/art pieces, a lot of jewelry, and lots of other colorful works of art.
People have been signing up for open mic all day. We have a “Chicken In” space—where people can “Chicken In” versus “Chicken out.” Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on two youth who came up from LA: they’re starting to connect to others, but I’m waiting for them to really take a creative risk. I’m not sure it’s going to happen, but we just hold space for it.
Then, one of these youths decides to “Chicken In”—I am so proud, Creative Risk is happening! He gets on the mic and says, “I’m here. I’m going to tell a joke.” He tells it, and in the middle of it, at the punchline, his friend bursts through the balcony of the Great Hall and delivers the punchline with force and power. Most triumphant moment I’ve ever seen: I laughed, I cried. One of them went on to sing a powerful song. We saw them blossom just with space and opportunity—to integrate and co-regulate with the other young people.
—CJ Suitt, 2023 Power of Hope Facilitator
This July, our Commonweal site was, once more, transformed into a cacophony of color, tents, artwork, music, dance, signs and banners by 2023’s Power of Hope youth camp. This year’s camp hosted youth ages 14-18, with a dynamic staff led by Samara Atkins and CJ Suitt.
This was CJ’s seventh year at Commonweal with the camp. CJ is a performance poet, arts educator, and community organizer whose work is rooted in storytelling and social justice. He was recently appointed as the first poet laureate of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“We often discover hidden talents of our young people during open mic night,” CJ said. “Youth we didn’t expect to get out there singing, are out there singing. Over the years, we’ve gotten good at letting the youth share their voices. We’re there to let them lead.”
According to CJ, creative risk taking is part of the magic of Power of Hope camp. Together, young people and adults build a heart-centered, creative community: a place where they can feel safe enough to take creative risks, to say what they feel, and to explore new ideas. Goals for participants during the week-long camp include exploring their own voices through creative arts, appreciating and learning from differences, reflecting on their inner lives, learning from nature, and finding ways to make a difference in the world.
Charlie Murphy, the co-founder of the Power of Youth, was quoted by Rupert Sheldrake as explaining, “Our basic idea is that young people thrive in the company of adults who themselves are awakened to their own calling, who are in touch with their creativity, and who are able to communicate authentically.”
This kind of community, CJ said, changes how both the youth and adults see each other in relationship to how they see the world around them. It’s a moment of pause in busy and often chaotic lives. Together, they navigate that shift.
Power of Hope camp has changed over the years it has been held at Commonweal, in part to meet the changing needs of the youth that participate, and in part a response to the leaders that join or come back as alumni of the camp. Before the pandemic, CJ said that youth were more open to discussion-based programs. Now, they really want to play and be in their bodies. The staff has become flexible since the pandemic, CJ said, adding nursing staff, or making the most of staff that can help youth address emotional challenges.
“This is powerful work, work that young people need, and work that the world needs,” CJ said. “I feel blessed to have the opportunity, to lead it, to be in the mix.”
—Kyra Epstein, Commonweal Communications