Summer opportunities for youth abound, but there are few options for young people who are interested in a variety of humane issues and who want to help create a better world. Activist and educator Nora Kramer saw that need and launched Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp in the Bay area last summer. This year there will be three sessions of YEA Camp, including a new one in the Portland, Oregon area. We talked with Nora about her education and activism experiences and about YEA Camp.

Quick Facts:

Current hometown: San Francisco, California
IHE fan since: 2002
Current job: Director, Youth Empowered Action
Book/movie that changed your life: Diet for a New America
Guilty pleasure: Sports – I grew up watching baseball and football with my dad and grandpa and am still hooked!
Inspired by: Activists who are just unstoppable and think big.
Love about yourself: How much I care and have grown and overcome.
One of your strengths: Maintaining a sense of humor.


IHE: What led you to the path of humane education?

NK: After several years of grassroots activism, I experienced that young people tend to be more receptive to new ideas and to changing their behaviors than adults. (This is obviously a generalization, but this was my experience overall.) I felt that there were lots of opportunities in this area to make a difference. I also really wish that I had had access to some of this information, or to adult activist role models, when I was a kid, so I appreciate providing and being this for youth now.

I sort of stumbled on humane education. Way back in 2001 I spent 6 months interning at Farm Sanctuary and PETA, and when I returned I was out of work and looking for ways to help animals. I was looking up volunteer opportunities on Craigslist and saw postings to teach at after-school programs. Having never taught before, I pitched a course called Animals and the Environment, and was pleasantly surprised that it was approved! In doing Internet research to create my curriculum, I found IHE and soon went to a Sowing Seeds workshop, practically memorized IHE’s materials and attended humane education workshops at conferences, and then began teaching as a guest speaker through a program called The Empathy Project. It was very rewarding.

IHE: You’ve been doing a lot to empower youth and to teach others about humane education issues. One of your recent projects has been to start Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp. How did that come about and what made you decide to manifest humane education in that way?

NK: When I began working with youth, many kids and parents asked if I knew of any summer opportunities for passionate kids who want to help animals or the planet or otherwise contribute to society. Parents reported that most animal shelters and other community organizations won’t accept volunteers under age 16 or 18. I started looking around, sure that there must be lots of summer programs for young activists, but I found hardly anything.

I loved summer camp when I was a kid, and I love teaching and working with youth in general. I also recognized camp as a huge opportunity because there are no state standards or curriculum requirements like in school, and there’s so much freedom to create the program you want. So I decided I would start this camp some day, and I worked at several camps, including as a camp director, and got my teaching credential in preparation for that. After getting laid off from teaching environmental ed last spring, I decided this would be the year, and we launched YEA Camp last summer.

IHE: The first YEA Camp was in summer 2009. Tell us about some of the curriculum and activities you used and why you chose them.

NK: We have a good balance of typical camp-type activities and workshops that slightly resemble school (there is some teaching and learning and discussion) but these are also camper-driven, interactive, relevant, and fun.

All of our curriculum is based on each camper learning about different social issues while identifying and pursuing an issue of importance to them, and then building knowledge, skills, confidence, and community that will empower them to take action. These are the areas we think are most important to supporting new activists.

Our activities are interactive and both thought-provoking and fun. To give a few examples: for knowledge, we do a “Compassion Into Action” workshop each day on a different social issue and discuss daily actions we can take, such as consuming less stuff, the world water crisis, and eating less meat. For skills, we do workshops on nonviolent communication practices (such as taking responsibility for your emotions, not blaming other people, making requests, and listening generously to other people for their commitment) as well as on articulating the issue that’s important to them and inspiring others to get involved. We also discuss starting and running an effective club, publicity and new media, and campaign planning.

For confidence building, we do one great activity called “Don’t Stop Till You Get a Yes,” where campers practice making requests – and don’t allow themselves to be stopped by getting a “no” for a response. We want to build their muscles for causing others to take action and not to stop or take it personally when people don’t respond the way we want them to. We also do activities called “Supermodel Role Models” and “A Million Ways to Make a Difference,” where campers learn about inspiring actions others are taking and brainstorm things they can do, too. We also do “Theater of the Oppressed,” which entails acting out and overcoming the things we fear.

Community-building is happening all week, but we also do some great activities that are really just based on all of us sharing ourselves and really getting to know each other authentically, as well as challenging stereotypes or norms about how we “should” be. We credit the work of Challenge Day, and their activities about gender roles, race, class, and privilege in general.

Some of the confidence- and community-building things we do are not as explicitly incorporated into the curriculum but are built into the way we speak and listen to the campers.

Our days are action-packed, and there’s so much more to say. You can read more on our website at www.yeacamp.org. We also have dance parties, free time, a (vegan) ice cream social, nature walks, appreciation circles, singing time, and other fun camp activities. It is summer camp, after all!

IHE: What was the response to YEA Camp?

NK: It was phenomenal. The kids had such an amazing time they actually decided to thank the staff by cooking us dinner on the final night, which was one of my top camp highlights, and certainly a new tradition! Just about all of the kids said they want to come back next year, and we got some of the most incredible feedback from parents. Two different moms said they hardly recognized their sons when they picked them up – they were so peaceful and happy. Our staff also had rave reviews.

IHE: What have been your successes and challenges in developing a summer leadership camp for teens that is focused on multiple global issues?

NK: The biggest success was just how well camp went last year, our first summer – and that it actually happened! I really couldn’t have imagined it would go any better. There were no cliques, fights, or even disagreements about different issues. My most cherished moments of success, I think, were on our final night hike and closing appreciation circle, when campers and staff thanked me for “following my dream” and making the camp happen. I definitely got teary at many points.
As for challenges, it has been a major challenge to get kids to stay in touch and to work on the projects they created at camp. I know kids can be very busy, but this was a bigger challenge than I expected, and we’re putting some new things in place for next summer to support campers working on their projects when they get home. Developing the camp has been a huge personal challenge, while also being incredibly rewarding.

IHE: Any future plans, dreams or projects?

NK: Build YEA to be a nationally recognized organization that people identify as invaluable training for youth who want to make a difference. Like I said, I am committed to us having more camps and reaching youth all over the country, as well as offering programs in schools. Perhaps we would package our curriculum or train teachers or create other programs during the school year. Feel free to offer any ideas!

~ Marsha

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