On February 19th, 17 youth organizers and 4 staff members from YO S.O.S. and the Brownsville Justice Center traveled to Camp Vacamas in New Jersey for an overnight retreat that was jam-packed with leadership and team challenges, creativity, learning, laughs, s’mores, and self-care.

The group gathered on Thursday morning at the Mediation Center, where they set intentions for the trip before heading off to the snowy, bear-filled, mountains of Jersey.  Many of the Youth Organizers set intentions around building deeper connections and trust between one another, others were eager to leave the city for a quieter environment to reflect and seek inner peace, and some really wanted to hear the scariest ghost stories possible around the evening campfire.

Thursday’s programming included a series of team challenges led by Vacamas staff; a self-care and stress management workshop in which Organizers discussed pressures they face in their lives and practiced meditation and self-massage techniques; theater games and mini-performances designed to build public speaking skills; activities exploring intersecting identities; and some free time during which the youth showed off their double dutch and basketball skills.

In the evening, the group gathered around a campfire with s’mores and Vacamas staff led an activity in which everyone shared what they were grateful for. Responses included appreciations for being a part of YO S.O.S., acknowledgement of supportive friends; and recognition of family members both alive and deceased. The campfire was followed by an evening story-telling circle which later became a spirited impromptu dance and karaoke party! At the end of the night, many Organizers were exhausted, but that did not keep people from giggling and bonding until midnight.

On Friday morning, the group arose early for a waffle breakfast followed by a workshop where they brainstormed community organizing tactics and developed campaign plans for their upcoming In-School Organizing projects. The retreat closed out with a circle in which everyone shared about their experiences on the retreat. One youth organizer shared that he felt he could “trust the entire group, which is not a way I have felt in any group before,” and another said she felt staff were “like big sisters.” The reflection ended with everyone holding hands and acknowledging their collective power, purpose, and love by chanting the inspiring words of Assata Shakur:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and protect each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

The group returned to Crown Heights on Friday afternoon, energized and inspired to continue building powerful youth movements for social change and working to end shootings and killings in Brooklyn.