Volunteer work keeps education assistant professor 'rooted in hope'

Jim Carlson
August 05, 2020

While the Camp Peaceworks Summer Book Club may be virtual, the discussions led by Michelle Knotts and Sara McPherson are very real.


Michelle Knotts

IMAGE: Penn State

Knotts, assistant professor in the Penn State College of Education, teams up with McPherson, director of outreach and education at Centre Safe in State College, to volunteer at Camp Peaceworks and conduct social justice conversations with Centre County youth ages 13-17. 

This is the third year that Knotts, also coordinator of secondary English in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s Professional Development School, has volunteered with Camp Peaceworks. She has been recognized by the organization as a "Partner in Prevention" (2019) and as the Rose Cologne Volunteer of the Year (2020) at a dinner hosted by Centre County Council for Human Services. 

Camp Peaceworks, now in its fourth year, strives to educate young people about the roots of oppression and violence, encourages them to encounter bias and work toward social justice, and empowers allyship and change within communities. 

“When I first learned about Camp Peaceworks, I immediately knew that I wanted to work with this program – to immerse myself in our community and to work with youth in meaningful ways beyond the classroom,” Knotts said. “I was a high school teacher for 15 years, and I missed working with youth and students in that age group, and I had just returned to State College and was looking for ways to volunteer and give back to the community. Camp Peaceworks seemed like the natural place to invest my passion, time and experience.” 

This summer’s virtual version of camp included a book club, inviting youth to read and discuss “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. Knotts said that the book explores the history of racist ideas and highlights people who have resisted racist ideas and policies.   

“The authors remind the readers that this is not a history book. This is a book about the here and now … a book about race,” Knotts said. “In our current context – especially amidst the uprisings and protests – students may wonder: how did we get here? Where did these racist policies, ideas and practices come from?” 

“This book is a way to learn about the people and events that have made racism a foundation of our nation and to learn about the people and movements who have worked to disrupt racism.  Learning this history leads to a better understanding of how to be an antiracist right here, right now and how to fight against the racist ideas that are embedded into our nation.” 

Knotts said there were 18 students age 13-17 in this summer’s book club. “Their reactions and openness have been inspiring. They share easily – and more importantly – they listen to learn with and from one another,” she said. 

Knotts also said students’ reactions to Camp Peaceworks have been overwhelmingly positive. Campers have expressed gratitude for being able to “learn in a judgment-free environment” and "a safe space that promotes empowerment and education" and one camper said that camp "changes your perspective of the world.” 

This year camp facilitators gathered input from youth participants and planned a virtual camp focused on racism in education. The four sessions include history, a community panel, amplifying voices, and activism and action. Knotts said they encourage youth to imagine possibilities, to see beyond the world as we find it and to look toward a world that could be. 

Knotts said ideas that have been discussed this summer include youth questioning the history they have learned (and did not learn) in school and expressing an appreciation for learning this history; realizing how education is a system that is deeply connected to larger social systems that are racist; and acknowledgment of their responsibility and their power to ignite social change. 

“The work is ongoing, not just a week in the summer,” Knotts said. “We continue to meet periodically with youth in the months between camp, and volunteers and the Centre Safe Education and Outreach team meet regularly to plan for camp. Camp Peaceworks is a highlight of my summer, and it keeps me rooted in hope for the entire year.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 03, 2020