Khiyloe Singsay, 15, is tall and slender, with a gentle and quiet demeanor. But Singsay’s neighborhood in Long Beach is anything but gentle and quiet.
“Definitely a lot of gang violence and poverty,” Singsay said. “A lot of the [youth], they want to act cool so then they try to be part of a gang, which leads them to selling drugs, or claiming [territory], which leads to them getting beat up.”
Singsay attended a summer camp that is trying to help young men like him grapple with ideas of masculinity and violence. The annual Sons & Brothers camp brings young men of color from cities across California to the woods of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a week of healing, empowerment and exploring the idea of manhood.
The Sons & Brothers Camp, now in its seventh year, has seen its share of tragedy, too. Last year, one of the camp’s rising youth leaders, Brandon Harrison, was gunned down in his neighborhood in Stockton. That cast a bittersweet shadow on this year’s gathering, even as the camp held activities in his memory.
Singsay is familiar with violence in Long Beach, too. Last year, he had a knife pulled on him, leaving scratch marks on his chest. In early August, two boys in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town were shot in a possibly gang-related incident.
Before he was born, Singsay’s parents immigrated as refugees from Cambodia and Thailand.
“My grandpa, he didn’t know English. Nor did my dad or my mom, so they would struggle to find food or money,” Singsay recalled.
His parents moved often and he attended seven different elementary schools.
“My dad, he always had to go to work to provide our income and for us to live. And then my mom, she had an alcohol addiction, so she [wasn’t] there for me,” he added.
At camp, Singsay found himself more than 500 miles away from the streets of Long Beach, immersed in pine trees and mountain air, with young men from cities all over the state. Each day, obstacle courses help build trust among the youth, who face similar challenges, but who, at first, were strangers to each other.
Singsay’s got to trust his teammates to help him as he scales a 10-foot wooden wall.
“Behind the wall is our future self, so you’ve got to get over the wall,” says Singsay.
“They tell you to be strong,” he explained. “You really don’t want to trust people around you, but I guess it showed me how to trust people and be more open.”
At another course there was a rope swing that required a blindfold, Singsay had to tell the group one of his deepest fears before taking the jump.
He mumbled that his fear is “being isolated and being alone, like no family, no one that loves me anymore.”
The final course is the most challenging: the Leap of Faith, where Singsay jumped off a platform 40 feet in the air, secured by a rope held by his teammates far down below. Although they wore harnesses, some youth were frozen in fear on the platform for more than half an hour as their teammates cheer them on.
“Once I got up I was like, ‘oh snap, I’m pretty high,’ but I still had the thought in my mind that I had my teammates down there that were supporting me,” Singsay explained, once he’s safely on the ground.
These experiences help Singsay and the other boys confront their fears and other emotions. He said they also helped him confront the challenges of dealing with masculinity as a young man of color, especially when his peers may turn to gangs and violence to hide their feelings.
“Society shows how men are ‘supposed to be’ instead of what they really are,” Singsay said. “I know people that are in gangs. They have their soft side. But sometimes I feel like they just need to show it and finally realize what you really are to do better. You don’t have to join a gang to be safe.”
One of the most anticipated events of the camp took place at dusk, when Singsay participated in a healing circle around a fire. This practice, known as Círculo, is facilitated by African-American, Latino and indigenous elders. The participants, both young and elderly, open up to each other about their greatest hopes and their darkest traumas. They take turns holding the palabra stick, granting each person in the circle the right to speak, one at a time.
“This is a time for us to drop what’s hurting us right now,” Singsay said. “In the past, I used to live in neighborhoods where they didn’t respect me because of my skin color and things that I did.”
As the hours-long circle talk ends, Singsay said his negative feelings and the person he used to be are left behind in the fire. Bonding with his camp brothers gave him some new ideas about who he wants to become.
“You get to leave what you’ve been carrying from the past,” Singsay explained. “Every morning, when you wake up, before you even move, just pray, and just appreciate that you’re awake and your eyes have opened,” Singsay added, citing the words of a camp elder.
As camp drew to a close, Singsay said he wanted to make more spiritual changes in his life to remind him to be more grateful for his family and friends. Over the his stay, he saw his closest cabin mates shed tears, open up and share personal tragedies, like losing a loved one.
“All the things the elders said, I feel like it really helped me how to be more thankful for the people around me and for the people I love because sometimes you’ll never know when they’ll be gone,” Singsay said.
“With my parents, I never talk to them about my life, so I feel like I’m going to start doing that more.”