Developing Youth Activists for a Lifetime of Social Change

By Laura Carver of Portland, OR. Laura is the Portland-area director for Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, which has camps in Portland, OR, and Santa Cruz, CA, and serves youth aged 11 to 16. YEA is currently accepting applications for 2010. She lives in Portland with her husband and two (small) kids. She can be reached at [email protected].

I believe the stereotype of today's youth--the “Me Generation”-- as apathetic and disengaged is misguided. What most young people are facing isn’t apathy; in fact, I believe many care very much about the problems they are inheriting, but they just don't know how to make a difference. Many do not see opportunities to get involved, do not see role models to emulate, have their passion watered down by all of the media messaging and passive entertainment they are exposed to, or simply don't have the knowledge, training, or encouragement to take action. I believe this only points to a need for community-building, mentorship, and training, and it is up to us as adults committed to social change to support young people in being involved.

That’s why I helped launch Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, a week-long leadership program for young people who want to make a difference in the world, taking place in Molalla this August. YEA Camp has identified four elements that we believe, when present, reliably lead to people taking action to make a difference, locally or globally: knowledge, skills, confidence and community. All of our activities are geared around these areas. Youth at YEA tap into their passions, identify an issue of importance to them, learn about different types of activism and other activists and campaigns they may want to emulate or get involved with. They practice speaking about their issue to other campers who may be unfamiliar or disagree, learn skills like how to start and run an effective school club, and they work with a staff mentor after they get home to implement their action plan.

This is the camp I wish had existed when I was a teen. Since a young age, I’ve been engaged in activism and politics, but I went through a period of disengagement during my teenage years that I barely snapped out of.

I first felt compelled to take action on an issue I cared about when I was 10 years old. I found out that wolves were being shot by the dozens from helicopters, and I knew I wanted to do something to stop it. I wrote an impassioned letter to the editor and to my congressmen urging the cessation of this practice. A few years later, in 1992, as many BlueOregon readers will remember, the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) put forward the infamous Ballot Measure 9, which said that the state government must not “promote” homosexuality and must “set the standard for Oregon’s youth” by recognizing that certain behaviors are wrong and immoral. Faced with the most blatant attack on civil rights in my (albeit short) lifetime, as a 14-year-old, I canvassed for the No on 9 campaign, going door-to-door urging voters to vote no. Due to our efforts, thankfully it failed. In 1994, I got involved in another successful campaign: Yes on 18, which banned the hunting of bears and cougars with bait and dogs. (Unfortunately, the repeal of this citizen initiative may be up for vote this November in Bill Sizemore-sponsored Initiatives 24 and 25.)

Despite getting active at a young age and having the support of a politically passionate parent, I was not connected to an organization, and didn't have any friends directly engaged in political or social activism. As a consequence, in high school my energy to make a difference gave way to social relationships, homework and college applications, and I stopped being involved or following political issues until late in college at OSU. Reflecting back, 20 years later, it seems to me that young people are capable of tremendous participation in political and social issues, but, perhaps more so than adults, they may choose not to get or stay involved if they experience a lack of encouragement, like-minded peers, a structured campaign, or training.

What would be possible if all youth who had an inkling to make a difference got the encouragement and training from attending a camp like this? This is YEA's first summer in Oregon, after a very successful pilot program in California last year, and we are working to get out the word about our program. We have slots available for campers aged 11-16, have employment opportunities, and are eager to create partnerships with organizations who see opportunities for collaboration. We are thrilled to make our program available for youth in Oregon. Young adults are a tremendous, largely untapped, political force that, with some encouragement and training, can embark on a lifetime of making a difference as agents for social change.

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    Does anyone remember Amy- I forget her last name- that ran screaming back to Nebraska? She laid out in gory detail what kills the motivation of a young activist.

    I'm rather sure she would caution against having them post here. There is no better way to learn that there is no hope to combat self-interested party politics.

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    I was lucky to have had a mentor when I was 13 who was involved in a labor zionist youth group called Habonim. My participation in that group and attending summer camp regularly for years shaped my interest in activism and has kept me focused on social justice and environmental issues through the years. I wish every young person could have such encouragement and mentoring in this area - it would lead to a much better world, IMHO. That's why I'm supporting Laura and the effort to get YEA Camp off the ground in Oregon. Please join us, and if you have teenage children or know someone who does, please consider sending your kids to this camp for a week. Thanks!

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