Anthony Thompson III was the first one to hit the “Peace Play” sandbox at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute’s second annual Peace-B-Que in Dorchester on Saturday.
The 7-year-old carefully assembled action figures to represent the world he wanted to live in: One where an Arthurian knight, an Army man, and a girl with pigtails stood protectively around a blue whale in the sand.
“Guarding,” he explained. It was a friendly and safe world he was after.
Beside him, 13-year-old Naesaun Jones arranged his own tableau. A little man faced a little woman in the sand, arms flung wide as if for a hug. Jones had just recently seen a woman pull a knife on another woman, he said, and he, too, was looking for safety.
“I would like to see people hugging, not fighting,” said Jones. “I want people to get along, to make Dorchester a stronger community.”
Dozens of people braved Saturday’s rain to eat hot dogs and hamburgers, make “Sno Kones,” practice their skateboarding skills, and play in the “Peace Play” sandbox, which is a healing practice that aims to help children and adults alike imagine their world and their troubles differently.
“We all have what we need in us to celebrate,” said Clementina “Tina” Chéry, president and chief executive of the Peace Institute, which she founded after her 15-year-old son, Louis, was caught in crossfire and shot to death in 1993. The Peace Institute helps families affected by homicide.
So often, Chéry said, community events occur only after tragedy. Saturday’s cookout was meant to be pure celebration: of family, friends, neighbors, and peaceful neighborhoods.
“No speeches, no one telling the community we have to do more, we have to come together,” she said. “Here, you don’t know who’s a politician.”
Chéry gestured to a gaggle of children riding skateboards around a parking lot, and a couple of little ones exploring a box of costumes.
“For the sake of them, how do we help them see that peace is something that comes from community?” she said.
In front of her, children had filled the Peace Play sandbox with wild visions of the worlds they wanted to live in. They had been told to pick among hundreds of small figurines -- wizards, cavemen, fire-breathing dragons, flowers, crosses, dreidles, castles -- and arrange them to create “a peaceful Boston.”
Guided by gentle questions from Shahi Smart, a survivor’s outreach service advocate with the institute, they talked candidly about what was important to them. Using the figurines means they don’t have to find the words, Smart said. A person seeking an answer might select a key; a person who feels pulled in many directions might pick an octopus. Once, Smart said, a little girl buried a doll, and told Smart the boy “got shot.”
On Saturday, the kids seemed focused on building worlds full of friends. Artise Brewer, 8, and his friend D.Z., 9, set up an elaborate fenced-in range, with a collection of animals surrounding a Bible and a cross. The Bible and the cross were for God, they said, and the fence was because God wanted the animals to be safe.
Artise pointed to a bear -- that was him, he told Smart. A nearby giraffe was D.Z. The bear and the giraffe go everywhere together, he said.
“Is the bear always happy, or only when he’s with the giraffe?” Smart asked.
Artise smiled. “Always,” he said.Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.