Kids. Activist. Summer. Camp. The words kind of send shivers down our Never-Never Land synapses. And though we're not exactly the target demographic for the Santa Cruz Mountains' Youth Empowered Action Camp, breathless longtime camp professional Nora Kramer's three year old vision of a place where socially conscious rockstars ages 12 to 17 could get together, hike it out, eat delicious vegan foods, and work on their plan to change the world has us all riled up in a yeah-that-exactly way.
The first California -- there's also a session in our northernly neighbor Oregon -- camp session starts real soon (July 23) and Kramer wants everyone to know that scholarships for young Julia Butterfly Hills and Van Joneses -- wherever they're at in their activist skills and projects -- are available. Know a parent or a kidlet? Forward them this interview, which single-handedly put Kramer and her team way, way up there on our "people who are really awesome" list.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: Tell me the story of how the camp started? When, where, who, all that.
Nora Kramer: I started YEA Camp in April 2009 after years of thinking “I want to start a camp one day for kids who want to change the world.” I couldn’t find a program quite like the one I wanted to work at -- one that trained young people to be effective in taking action for what they believe in and care about. I was teaching environmental education and, with the economy really tanking, I was laid off. On my last day with the middle school club I advised, they asked me what I was going to do next. I wanted to reassure them that I’d be OK, so I nervously told them that someday I was planning on starting a camp for kids who want to change the world. They were so excited about it and asked me when the camp would start! In that moment, I knew I was ready to launch the program, and that there was a demand for this, and I said “August!”
I had already done an intensive training with the American Camp Association and worked as a camp director. I had a friend design our website pro-bono, and we had our pilot program in summer 2009. I hired incredible staff who all worked for free and we had amazing campers, most on almost full scholarships, as we were an unproven program people had never heard of. I contacted a beautiful venue I had been to with another youth program and found a time it was available, and I paid the deposit on it out of my savings account, hoping to recoup it once kids registered. That session was a total success, and we’re now up to summer No. 3.
Tomorrow's leaders gettin' crazy at YEA Camp 2010. Photo by Cody Cha
SFBG: What's a typical day at the camp?
NK: We get up and have French toast or pancakes prepared by our talented cooks. We make music or do some other group activity to wake up. Then we head off to a hike or fun outdoor activity. When we come back, we do a workshop about an issue or practice a skill to bring about change on any issue, like how to start a club at school. We have a snack, like fruit or chips and salsa, and might play a group game that demonstrates a concept we are working on. We watch a movie about young activists who are doing amazing work right now and discuss their leadership qualities and what made them successful. Then we have lunch -- maybe vegetarian BLTs or burritos -- and then we have free time after that. Our afternoon workshops would be another skill or knowledge-building activity such as how to run a successful campaign (for example how to get recycle bins at your school), a group game, and discussion. We have amazing dinners -- pizza or sushi with brownies or chocolate chip cookies for dessert. All of our food is vegan, mostly organic, and all delicious. We cap the day off with a fun group evening activity like a scavenger hunt, dance party, or night hike.
SFBG: Why did you think it was important for a camp like this to exist?
NK: I had been doing grassroots activism for a long time, and had worked with youth at camps, after-school programs, and teaching high school, and I met a lot of young people who were passionate about making the world a better place in some way--whether by rescuing an animal, recycling religiously, being part of their Gay Straight Alliance at school, or being a vegetarian. I started to notice they didn’t necessarily have any training or support or role models to nurture their involvement. There’s coaches and after-school practice to help you get better at sports, but what about to train you to make a difference in your community?
Sometimes kids who care or speak up about environmental or other issues are made fun of or criticized and get discouraged. I feel like our world is facing so many challenges, and we need to bring youth together with like-minded peers and adults to support them in taking action so they can bring about the world they want to see. If there can be successful summer camps for kids who like volleyball or theater or play the violin, why not for youth who want to make the world a better place?
SFBG: Where did you go to learn about activism as a youth? Where do you think most kids go today?
NK: I was not by any stretch a youth activist. When I was a teenager, I had no idea what activism was. I had a vague sense that there was some injustice in the world -- I grew up in New York City, where I saw incredible wealth not far from people sleeping on the streets. But while I had progressive parents who taught me to question things and think for myself, I wasn’t really aware of a lot of social problems until college, and had no sense that I had any power to make a difference. Today, youth have far greater access to information -- it’s no comparison -- thanks in large part to the Internet and technology. Kids today reach out to organizations online, watch videos on Youtube, and might join a school club or get involved with a local youth program. But I honestly think a lot of youth don’t get or stay involved because there is not enough support.
Silly, silly changemakers. Photo by Ivan Olsen
SFBG: Is it easier today to learn about this stuff than when we were growing up?
NK: Absolutely. I grew up pre-Internet, which was a whole different world. Technology like Yahoogroups and Googlegroups, blogs and vlogs, e-newsletters, Youtube, Facebook causes, Twitter, and so much more make it more possible than ever to access information, connect with others who are like-minded, and advocate for important causes. Most organizations have multiple websites devoted to different issues they are working on. Ironically and unfortunately, this can also lead people to feel like they are on information overload, overwhelmed, alone and helpless to take action in the face of such large issues.
SFBG: Surely your campers are all the offspring of super activists already -- or have you ever had a camper whose parents weren't super stoked on the idea of camp?
NK: It totally varies. A lot of our kids’ parents are very progressive and politically aware and active; others aren’t but they want their kids to be happy and go to whatever camp they want. Often we have parents contact us and say “This is so perfect for my son! He started an environmental club at his school and doesn’t know anybody else who cares about these issues as much as he does!” They are relieved to find a program that speaks directly to their child’s interest and passion, whether or not it’s shared by the parent.
Thumb hug. Photo by Mike Melero
SFBG: What are some of the awesome projects that have come out of the camp?
NK: So many cool things! Campers have organized a beach cleanup, created a music video about youth empowerment, started several school clubs, raised over $1000 for a local animal shelter, interned at a nonprofit, gotten vegetarian options in their school cafeteria, organized a call-in to Congress, and lots more. There’s also the daily actions, like campers bringing water bottles with them, buying less stuff, eating healthier, or using communication skills they learned at camp to speak more effectively about their issue and influence people at school to get involved. Two campers also organized a benefit concert and a fundraising dinner to pay for their tuition to return to camp this year!
SFBG: What's the hardest part about running a camp like this?
NK: I think it’s staying present to how amazing the camp is in, say, February, when last year’s camp seems like a long time ago and next summer’s camp seems like a long ways away. It makes doing work throughout the year tougher to keep in context. I think also going beyond my own comfort zone and skill set to learn more and build the team has been a great but challenging experience for me. Working at a start-up non-profit poses challenges, but every time I read an amazing camper application, I feel so proud and honored to do what I do.
Youth Empowered Action Camp
Session I: July 23-29, $925 without scholarship
Session II: July 30-August 5, $925 without scholarship
Quaker Center, Ben Lomond Calif.