I spent my summer listening to children scream for hours on end and riding the train home covered head to toe in paint. And it was the most inspiring experience I have ever had.
The Leaders of Today Peace Academy, run by the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, is a community youth program with after-school programming that offers everything from fun and games to academic enrichment. Over the summer, they do the same–but in the form of a summer camp.
I had the joy of working as a teaching assistant this year, helping to teach kids aged five through seven. Alongside the time I spent in the classroom, my overarching project was to bring more artistic joy to the program’s space. Though many walls had already been beautifully covered, those with the greatest ability to welcome remained barren. That was where I came in to help. I set up two community painting projects, the first was a painting hung on the outside door, and the second was a mural on the wall leading down inside, which I created by asking each child to paint a self-portrait. These paintings were hung in the shape of a peace sign, marking a core value of the community. The kids did wonderfully, and I would like to believe that the space is much more welcoming than it was before.
But, truth be told, I don’t believe that these projects were the biggest thing that I’ve done this summer. Early in the program, I found that some of these kids had not yet been exposed to members of various communities outside of their own. I found myself constantly explaining how I can be a boy while looking like a girl, how I can be disabled while looking healthy, why I was never seen without the “pretty yellow star” dangling from my neck, and millions of other questions that strike nerves when asked by adults. But with these kids, it was different. It was a world of opportunity to help in the creation of a new generation that learned love and acceptance before they learned their ABCs. It feels refreshing to speak with people who don’t need to retroactively unlearn societal hatred, because it was never fully introduced at all.
In all honesty, I’ve always despised the narrative that “the new generation will save us.” It feels cheap, lame, lazy, and hopeless. Who are we to say that once a new child is born, we no longer need to do our work? But, staring through the souls of these young faces, I realized that there is a difference between ceasing one’s work and rejoicing in the fact that it will not always be as difficult. When I say that the new generation will save us, I don’t mean that I’ll ever give up the work I do. Mark my words, I will be eighty years old in a nursing home and still going to protests in my tattered punk vest. I’ll still be collecting patches for it, even when it seems there isn’t room any more. But I do mean that, when this new generation grows up and has their own kids and grandkids, we won’t need so many protests, because love, kindness, and compassion will have become the cultural norm.