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Building Strong Community Partnerships and Schools

A roadmap for finding champions and collaborators
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Shawn Ginwright likes to think of the summer camp program that he and his wife first started in San Diego, California, more than 30 years ago, as his “Field of Dreams.” He launched Camp Akili the same year that Kevin Costner starred in the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name. In the movie Costner’s character, a farmer in Iowa, hears a mysterious voice telling him “If you build it, he will come” and sees a vision of a baseball diamond in his cornfield. 

Ginwright, a Harvard Graduate School of Education scholar and youth development professional, didn’t design his program to help baseball players, though. He wanted to create a peaceful and joyous place for young people of color suffering with persistent traumatic stress from growing up in, what he describes as, toxic environments shaped by violence, systemic racism, and intentional disinvestment. 

“If you saturate young people and adults with building a sense of belonging and community — a place where they can talk about their trauma and feel safe and held and provide some tangible tools about how to actually navigate their own behavior and mental health, people will use it and people will come,” he explains about the camp.

And people have kept coming over many years — in San Diego, in Oakland, and this past summer in Philadelphia which became the first city to host Camp Akili on the East Coast. Now Ginwright’s nonprofit, Flourish Agenda, is helping train educators in the Philadelphia School District in his practice of healing-centered engagement, which promotes self-esteem and good mental well-being, and creates positive conditions for academic achievement and a healthy school climate.

“In Philadelphia, we saw the magic of what can happen when you select the right community partners,” says Ginwright. The city wants to host multiple camps next year because of the success of the summer program.

The scholar-practitioner is currently collecting empirical data on his partnerships in Philadelphia and figuring out the necessary ingredients to bring Camp Akili, and his social-emotional learning approach, to other city schools and communities. Here are some of his early takeaways about what he believes is needed to be successful: 

  1. Commitment from a long-standing institution. A group of people who are interested in having healing-centered engagement practices in their own city and a commitment from a city office such as a school district, a recreation and parks department, or a department of public health.
  2. A champion in the city. Someone who really understands the ins and outs of their city’s bureaucracy, is well connected and respected in their community, and who can move along the process of contracting, arranging funding, and getting other people on board.
  3. Committed community members. Other partners, such as folks at a nonprofit organization, a faith community, or parents, who are “committed to being part of the experience and working together.”  
  4. Dedicated funding. Money to cover the costs of educators’ training and professional development, and for the technical support with implementing the practices. A substantial donor would be helpful.
  5. Youth. Access to young people who can be deeply engaged, along with other community members, in the design and execution of the process and spread the word to others, including their friends. 

Moving forward, Ginwright says he plans to study the impact of his work on students and teaching staff in the Philadelphia School District. He wants to evaluate how both groups are using the tools and skills they learned about at Camp Akili, and during school time and training sessions, to sustain their well-being, and what difference it has made to their behavioral and mental health.

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