By Laura Carver, Assistant Director of Youth Empowered Action Camp
Most people thinking about their summer plans fantasize about lying on a beach or catching up on some TV. However, our society is currently faced with enormous social and environmental problems. If we are going to make any headway in dealing with the critical problems of our time, it is necessary for people to be informed and engaged so they can take action. Creating engagement is key — and this is something we want to do something about.
In fact, this is what we are doing during our summer vacation.
We would like to take this time to debunk the myth of apathetic teenagers. Many youth instinctively want to do something about the problems they learn about. Nevertheless, while school curricula and the media cover some issues, there is typically no call to action, critical analysis of root causes or solutions, or even a suggestion that individuals have the responsibility or power to make a difference.
As a result, it is no surprise that youth are often seen as “apathetic” or too young to understand. They then become jaded or disengaged adults. In the absence of institutional encouragement — in fact, even with institutional discouragement — along with peer pressure and a lack of good role models, it is tempting for young people to put their desire to help aside, particularly in the face of schoolwork, sports and other activities.
Many youth programs, including our summer camp, Youth Empowered Action (YEA), have been created in recognition of this missing and critical piece to inspire social engagement. These programs are working to help caring young people become confident, inspired leaders overcoming challenges and making a difference. At our week-long leadership-based summer camp, campers choose an issue that they care about and develop the knowledge, skills, confidence and community to address that issue when they get home. They are nurtured and validated, given inspiring examples of social changemakers as well as a network of support.
We believe teenagers are at a critical juncture in life as they explore their identity and values, and that the current climate encourages a lifetime of disengagement. The strategy of many youth empowerment programs, including YEA, is to address the many issues we face as a nation and as a global community by ensuring that young people are empowered to make an impact on those that are most meaningful to them. The summer is a perfect time for youth to learn about these issues. While taking a break from school, grades and activities, youth can attend programs like YEA Camp, volunteer in their community, or otherwise engage on issues like the environment, human rights, animal rights, bullying and others.
The reason why programs like this are so successful is that they are designed to take a teenager who cares about an issue but isn’t necessarily active or being effective, and transform them into someone who is making a significant difference. The most important factors preventing young people from effectively bringing about social change are knowledge, skills, confidence, and community. When youth get to meet other youth who care about the same things they do, they can support each other in taking action. They also gain a unique experience that they can take with them throughout their lives. They take away skills they can use to make a difference in their personal lifestyle, their communities and the world. Becoming part of a network of fellow teens and adults to help them along their path is key, as is having a good time while getting inspired to bring about the world we want to live in.
Youth empowerment programs are building a youth culture where it’s “cool to care.” This is an antidote to the prevailing messaging in current youth culture that promotes, at best, a kind of apathy, and at worst, a materialistic “me-centric” culture. Teens go back to their schools and communities from these programs as leaders and role models for their peers: they start clubs, create fundraisers and events, set up information tables and pass out flyers to raise awareness, speak out about what’s important to them, and take creative and bold action to make a difference. Their example sparks their peers’ curiosity, and change ripples through communities.
Youth camps like YEA are part of a growing movement that is developing youth leadership for social change and is filling a gap where schools, documentaries and the Internet leave off. The most critical attributes young people will need in the future will be initiative, confidence, commitment, and community support as they take the helm of the ship and steer it toward a more just and sustainable society.