“You are blessed. You are loved. You are sacred,” said Maestro Jerry Tello, as he introduced himself to over 100 young boys and men of color for the first time, with words spoken that some youth had never heard before in their lives.
Maestro Jerry Tello
This week, youth leaders from all across California gathered together at the 2018 Sons and Brothers camp, a statewide camp dedicated towards empowering, healing and developing the leadership skills of young boys and men of color. Though I was lucky enough to accompany the media team for the 2017 Sons & Bros camp, I was beyond excited when I was invited to come back. Knowing that I knew what to expect made things familiar, but I knew that no experience would remain the same, with new participants, new discussions, and new experiences to share.
With some young men waking up as early as 4 a.m. to catch a bus from the southernmost parts of California, we all arrived safely at camp. Before eating dinner, our elders at the camp spoke of why breaking bread was a sacred act. From the hands that cultivate the seeds in mother earth, to the hands that help transport our food, to the very hands that pick our food, breaking bread is a sacred act within itself, a form of building community with one another. Though most folks sat with the same group of folks they came to camp with, I knew this would change in just a few days, once the bonding of brotherhood began.
Activities include time for artistic expression.
Though the same spirit, energy and passion all returned from last year, things felt different. Thanks to the help of the Youth Design team, a lot of the program was revamped and improved. From more comfortable seating cushions at workshops, to a change of how activities were scheduled, youth took on direct roles of emceeing and facilitating activities. The Youth Design Team set the tone from day one, showing youth one of the most important chants of the week:
“I AM, Somebody.
And I won’t be stopped by NOBODY.
I got my fist in the air,
I got my movement in my feet,
I got love for my people,
And it starts with ME.”
Group portrait of the 2018 Sons & Brothers Camp.
Every day of camp, each of these lines helped center our conversations and lessons around identity, healing, masculinity, femininity, leadership, and what it meant to be our authentic selves, and what it meant to support others as their authentic selves. Sharing similar struggles of discrimination, due to race, gender identity, sexual orientation and income, young men spoke about what it means to be an ally. “I think it means knowing when to step up for someone when they’re being mistreated,” said one youth. Another youth added, “Yeah, but it depends. Being an ally, it can also mean knowing when to take a step back and empower other people, rather than assuming somebody wants or even needs your help.” Needless to say, I was impressed by the all the discussions and stories that took place between youth who lived in very different areas of the state.
On that note, being in the woods was a beautiful experience for youth who had never seen nature like this before. Waking up to see a deer just feet from your cabin, seeing trees taller than you’d ever seen before, and of course the infamous mosquito bites that come along with forgetting to apply bug spray. I remember one youth from the Central Valley saying, “I can actually breathe and see the stars out here.” The elevation was definitely different and winded a few youth when it came to running. That didn’t stop them from exploring rec activities like archery, swimming, soccer and basketball, though. For some youth, having those outlets was a form of self-care. Others also got to explore their artistic side through producing raps and beats, learning how to play traditional African drums, writing spoken word and even creating their own artwork through stencils and spray paint. Regardless of whatever form of art or medium they chose to express themselves through, I saw youth fall in love with these activities and what it brought out of them.
Learning how to lay down some beats.
The transformation from Sunday night to Friday evening was amazing. Remember how I mentioned that youth pretty much sat with people they knew during that first dinner? That didn’t last too long, with youth reppin’ their cabin pride to the fullest. Though cabins were assigned cleanup after meals, by the third day of camp, youth were simply volunteering to help their brothers out regardless of whose “turn” it was. Helping each other through ropes courses and obstacles, I saw youth face their fears with the encouragement, and the strength that they found in each of their brothers.
The late Brandon Harrison
As a collective, we also remembered one of our brothers from camp who had passed on to the other side, Brandon Harrison. A leader of Stockton and a member of the PYC (President’s Youth Council), Brandon had brought energy, love and passion to everything he did. I had the pleasure of meeting Brandon a few years ago at the Free Our Dreams Summit in Sacramento. I remember him bringing that same passion to Sons & Bros camp last year. Brandon was truly inspiring to all those around him at camp. From day one, you could see the love Brandon had for his hometown of Stockton, and his love for the community. From #GettingLoud during rallies in Sacramento, to being an inspiring mentor for all the youth around him at camp, Brandon embodied the spirit and energy of youth all throughout California. A father, a mentor and a friend to anyone who came across his way, Brandon will always be remembered as a leader.
Though each of these young men gained strength, wisdom and healing, it was through this healing that they also learned how to deal with some of the pain and trauma that they had faced in their lives. It is here at camp that many learned how to let go. More than just good food, and great fun, camp was also a time to come together and heal generations of trauma that young boys and men of color face on a daily basis. Through breathing exercises, meditation, art and the sacred practice of healing circles, the elders taught our young men how to face deep issues within their lives and how to let go of the pain. For some, it was the first time they were allowed to open up about these stories and share a space where they knew they would be welcomed, loved and affirmed no matter what. Many tears were shed, but for every tear that was shed, there was a great weight lifted off of the shoulders of ancestors who had carried that trauma for generations.
Blog Author Randy Villegas on the grounds of the Sons & Brothers Camp.
Together we all shared laughs, tears and the memories that will last a lifetime. As part of the media team, I was able to compose our “weekbook” with cabin photos, individual photos and action shots of young men throughout the week. Whether it was putting together the weekbook, or typing the words that I write at this very moment, I was reminded of what our fearless leader Michael said the first night of camp: “We’re here because for hundreds of years, stories have been told. Often times that story has been told by the wrong person, and our history was not captured in the right ways. We are here to change that.” Our media team was composed of folks from as far south as Coachella, to as far north as Del Norte, and I am grateful that I got to work with such a diverse amazing team. This is our story, and this is just the beginning of history. As each of these young men moves forward with their lives after camp, they will be re-writing history in their own way. Palabra.