IHE: Nora Kramer is the director of Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, a social justice activist camp for teens and adults that she founded in 2009 to help aspiring activists make a bigger impact on the causes they care about. For almost 20 years, Nora has devoted her career and much of her volunteer time to activism on a variety of progressive political issues, with a particular focus on factory farming and animal advocacy. She is the author of the recent ebook The Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World, a resource to help people get more involved and be more effective in their activism. Nora is an outstanding humane educator, a valued colleague, and a dear friend to us at IHE.
IHE: You’ve been an activist for decades. What inspired you to become a humane educator as your strategic path toward creating change?
Nora: I went through a phase in my early years as an “angry activist.” Many activists around me were also driven by their anger at the state of the world and at anyone who wasn’t actively working, or doing “enough,” to help. While we have good reason to be angry, being driven by anger didn’t feel right personally, or as a way to inspire others to bring about change. I did a lot of work on myself and started reading about humane education and IHE’s work.
One of the first humane education presentations I gave, almost 20 years ago now, was for a 5th grade class. After presenting about where our food comes from, a girl raised her hand and asked, “Are you saying it’s wrong to eat meat?”
Many animal rights activists would have said that yes, of course it was wrong, but I thought it was far more appropriate, empowering, and effective to say, “It’s up to each person to decide what they think is right or wrong. I just want you to have enough information to help you think about it and make that decision. What do you think?” It felt much more authentic to respond that way, and more effective for that girl to go home and reflect with her family about what she thinks, instead of telling her family that some lady at school told her that something they are doing is wrong. I think this shows the beauty and power of humane education.
IHE: Yes, it does. When we can let go of telling others what they should believe and feel, and instead invite others to identify their deepest values and live accordingly, we create opportunities for profound change and collaboration. Why did you choose to create a camp?
Nora: I started teaching humane education classes as a volunteer at public elementary, middle, and high schools in 2001. I loved it, and so did the students. I had several parents and students ask me for ideas about things they could do during the summer. Many were too young to intern or volunteer for most nonprofits, or even to walk dogs at the animal shelter. I realized summer is a perfect time to learn more and focus on an issue you care about.
I’d gone to camp as a child and had worked as a camp counselor for several summers in college, and I loved both experiences, so I began imagining what a humane education camp might look like. I knew there were specialty camps for youth who are into sports, music, or other hobbies, so I started researching to see if there were any camps teaching about activism or social justice. There were some great programs – most of which I worked or volunteered at during the following years to learn as much as I could – but none were what I was envisioning.
Just like sports and music camps give youth the opportunity to focus on improving their skills, activism is a skill worthy of a camp, too.
In my own efforts to make as big a difference as possible, I’d spent a lot of time trying to learn as much as I could, reading and watching documentaries, going to conferences and teach-ins, and then training other activists. I’d learned so much about so many issues over the years that I wanted to synthesize and pass along, and I had done tons of personal growth work that I knew would help aspiring activists. I saw a camp as the best medium to lead this type of training.
IHE: I began my career as a humane educator by offering week-long summer courses for middle school students, and I remember feeling so incredibly excited that you were leading this initiative, which I knew from my own experience had the power to transform youth and, through them, so many systems in need of change. Tell us about YEA Camp. What happens during the week?
Nora: Your work has been a huge inspiration!
YEA Camp is a week-long overnight camp for aspiring activists who know they want to make a bigger difference in the world. We incorporate the fun, inspiration, and community-building of summer camp with activities that are designed to train people to have a bigger impact on the causes of their choice.
For the past 10 years, we’ve been offering the camp to 12-17-year-olds, and for the past 2 years we’ve been running camps for adults as well.
We do typical camp activities like play games, sing songs, have a talent show, campfire, and dance party, but instead of spending the bulk of our days making friendship bracelets, swimming, or playing kickball, we have workshops on topics from Institutionalized Racism to Gender to Nonviolent Communication to Effective School Clubs.
Our curriculum is designed to build campers’ knowledge, skills, confidence, and community – four areas critical to making a bigger difference. We give campers opportunities to “share about what they care about” – not only giving them a chance to learn from and educate one another but also to improve their communication skills and build confidence. We teach about the basics of activism, including looking at past movements, the challenges of speaking up, systems of privilege and oppression that maintain unjust power dynamics, and tons of examples of things campers can do to get involved.
We can’t teach about every issue, but we do teach specifically about the environment, racism, gender, and our food choices. We actually do a whole workshop on food the first night of camp because of how much of an impact we can make through our dietary choices, and because all our food is vegan and we want campers to understand why we eat that way during our time together.
We also look at the interconnections between seemingly unrelated issues. It’s important to me that nobody leaves YEA Camp without a sophisticated understanding of the interconnection between social justice, environmental, and animal issues.
At the halfway point, everyone chooses what we call their IOI – their Issue of Importance – and they work in small groups with a staff advisor passionate about that issue.
The second half of camp is focused on skill-building – what to do about the problems they’ve learned about. We teach workshops on persuasive communication, grassroots outreach, campaign planning, arts activism, political involvement, and more.
Throughout the week we also teach self-care practices, while leading activities designed to help campers out of their comfort zone.
By the end of camp, everyone creates and presents an action plan and shares how they’ll make a difference when they go home. It’s so inspirational to see them pull it all together at the end of the week!
IHE: What are some of the outcomes you’ve witnessed from YEA Camp, both for the kids themselves and in relation to addressing and solving challenges in the world?
Nora: There are so many stories of campers doing such different, inspiring things.
After creating her action plan at YEA Camp, Julia Clark got the name of her high school changed. It had been named after a slave owner. Now it’s called Justice High School! Another camper, Ethan Lyne got very involved with politics after his time at YEA Camp and later became a lead organizer to help get a polling place at his college. Leah Kelly got Meatless Mondays implemented in her entire school district! And Ananya Singh, now 16 and a staff member with us, has become an extremely accomplished environmental activist and is the CEO of Greening Forward. She had never done any activism before she first came to YEA Camp when she was 12. There are so many inspiring stories.
I’ve seen so many examples that show how one week can change a person’s life. Years after attending YEA Camp, I hear from former campers about what a difference that week made in their lives and their activism, a reminder that humane education is so powerful.