In August, we hosted our annual summer camp at Smoke Farm in which seven high school students built two fantastic new structures. Each teen walked away with improved carpentry skills, a few new splinters, and an expanded sense of self-efficacy. (Want to learn more about the students’ projects? Check out these galleries of their Taoist-style tea house and a kiosk for low-income vendors.)  Parallel with its ability to empower individuals, Sawhorse Revolution summer camp is unique in its ability to foment friendships and provide a palpable experience of community.  For us, this has always generated an interesting question:  how might a sense of community and individual growth be interconnected?

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Despite all its buzzwordy glory, there is no better word than “community” to describe the sense of reciprocity, support, and belonging in the air at the Sawhorse summer camp. The Meriam Webster Dictionary defines “community” primarily as, “a unified body of individuals.”  SR summer camp unifies individuals through the provision of a shared project and the dismantling of conventional social barriers that normally scare people away from acting with honesty and humility.

Knowing they will not be shunned, demeaned, or turned away, participants express vulnerability through building: they admit ignorance, learn new ways of doing and find ways to repair mistakes. Participants who have never touched a hammer find the courage to try framing walls; others learn to drill straight by fixing their wonky first attempts.  Individual students see that their fears, their doubts, and their suffering find resonance and relief in the empathy of their peers.  This power of the summer camp community was evident in one student’s transformative experience this August. In Sarah’s words,

This student, who was one year into his recovery from a traumatic brain injury, really struggled at the start of camp to open up. He initially seemed closed-off and had a hard time concentrating. But, through his perseverance and the effort of mentors and peers, he got comfortable and started to share his life, as well as help with more aspects of camp. It was amazing to see how everyone’s support seemed to shoulder his suffering, even if it was only for one week.

The support of others at camp was instrumental in diffusing the student’s personal suffering, freeing him to emerge from his inner world, “open up,” and engage more deeply in the experience of the camp. In this way, a sense of community may be inexorably tied to individual growth.

Would this student have found the same type of rejuvenating strength in a more independent learning environment?  Building a small birdhouse or spice rack on his own would undoubtedly bring him a sense of accomplishment.  But, our suspicion is that by courageously entering into a messy, dynamic and often-challenging setting of a community, this student found a powerful form of support that allowed him to do far more than just “accomplish” – it allowed him to discover the freedom of being himself and trusting others.

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In this month’s series of blog posts, Sarah Smith provides her (and Michel Foucault’s) perspective on why these messy communities are so important for us.  But we also want to hear from you!  In what settings in your life have you experienced a similar sense of communal support? Think back to these moments—did they also involve some sort of shared endeavor and a cultural environment of openness?

Share your ideas in the comments below. Let’s converse!

We would love to feature your Sawhorse-related work here! If you would like to submit an essay, reading, poem, or any other piece for publication on the Sawhorse Revolutionaries blog, email [email protected].