March 25, 2010
Marsha Rakestraw, NW VEG Board Member
Summer opportunities for youth abound, but there is rarely anything available for veg kids who are interested in helping 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 YEA Camp has expanded to the Portland area (August 14-21). I talked with Nora about her veg and activism experiences and about YEA Camp.
MR: Tell us about your journey to veganism and activism.
NK: I went mostly vegan pretty much overnight. I was 21 and in my senior year of college, and it was a total fluke. I was in Lecture Hall 1, with 500 other people, in Environmental Science 101, which I only took because it fit into my schedule and fulfilled a requirement. We watched Diet for a New America, the documentary based on John Robbins' classic book, and I was transformed. I was shocked to discuss the movie with some other people in my class and to find that they were not altering their selection for lunch even just for that day. Activism-wise, it took me a while because I really had no role models or people in my life doing anything remotely activist-oriented. My first activism was pretty much just being a jerk to people in my life who ate meat, but that didn't go very well. Eventually, in 2001, I did an internship at Farm Sanctuary and then at PETA, which gave me lots of ideas as well as like-minded friends; that experience really normalized activism for me, which before then hadn't fit with my self-identity.
After my internships, I started doing all kinds of different activism focused on promoting vegetarianism, like passing out "Why Vegan" brochures, writing letters to the editor, and organizing local conferences. When looking up volunteering options, I saw a posting for a teacher at an after-school program, and I pitched a class called Animals and the Environment. I developed the curriculum for it and taught at three different schools. I worked for In Defense of Animals (IDA) for two years, for FARM's CHOICE campaign to get more vegetarian options in schools, and was one of two regional coordinators of California's Prop 2 campaign. Activism is a huge part of my life.
MR: How did YEA Camp come about?
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. 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. We launched YEA Camp last summer.
MR: You’ve made vegan food and animal protection issues two of the primary tenets of the camp. How has that gone over with the campers--and their parents?
NK: It's been great. We're explicit on our website about the food being vegan, though not everyone read that, we learned at camp. I was a little nervous that some people might be unpleasantly surprised, but not at all. Our first night, we did our "CIA: Compassion Into Action" activity on food issues, where we watched The Meatrix and discussed openly why we'd be eating the food we would be at camp and took lots of questions. It was great to have three vegetarian kids who passionately shared their thoughts.
Our food was awesome, and a lot of thought went into our meal planning. Money was basically not a consideration. I was committed that they come away thinking that the food was (a) great and (b) not weird. We did a good balance of processed foods kids love, like veggie burgers and soy yogurts, with more unprocessed foods like stir-fries and burritos. We focused our menu on having items from different cultures, as well as "veganizing" foods like pancakes and chocolate chip cookies. We got nothing but rave reviews.
MR: 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.
MR: What made you decide to focus on educating and empowering youth?
NK: Kids are so passionate and have a strong sense of right and wrong. I find youth to often be less jaded or willing to tolerate or be resigned about the status quo than adults are. I don't believe the stereotype that youth are apathetic. I think most kids live in a world full of apathetic adults who have designed lives--and a whole world, really--for them that encourages and rewards apathy.
If you’re interested in volunteering or supporting YEA Camp in another way, contact Portland Area Director, Laura Carver, at firstname.lastname@example.org.