Feminist Summer Camp? Yes, Please!

While the idea of a feminist summer camp may immediately have you dreaming about roasting marshmallows by a fire while French braiding a fellow feminist’s hair and singing along to some Ani DiFranco (or maybe that is just me), Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner had something different (yet equally, if not more, awesome) in mind.

The longtime feminists and co-authors of Manifesta and Grassroots found themselves spending a lot of time on college campuses, either on book tours or as invited speakers for student events. Together they founded Soapbox Inc. in 2002, to help student and community groups book feminist speakers for their events and help promote books and films within the feminist community.

Through their experience on college campuses, they began to realize that there was a huge disconnect between the feminism that was being taught in school, which mostly revolved around theory and the 1970s political movement, and how feminism is practiced in everyday life.

In an attempt to help bridge this gap, the first ever Feminist Boot Camp was born in 2007. Originally geared towards college students, grad students, and recent grads, the camp was structured daily by theme and included meetings with relevant organizations, speakers and feminist leaders, and lots and lots of discussion and bonding. The aim of the camp was to help these young feminists build a community but also learn ways to transform their feminism into a career after college.

Soapbox has since developed a Feminist Intensive course geared at professors and professionals that works to bridge the gap between academia and activism and just last week they hosted their first ever Feminist Day Camp for high school students.

I had the pleasure of discussing the idea for the camps and need to develop a program for high school aged students with Amy Richards herself. The aim of each of the camps is to transform feminist theory into practice.

When I asked Amy what this means to her, she said, “We all have something inside of us, some experience in our lives, that makes us feel insecure … it’s this sense that there is a norm that were not living up to, and for me feminism is about changing what our perception of that norm is.” For the high school students especially who feel the pressure to go to college, get married, have children, and measure their success in terms of money, the camps aim to challenge them to “redefine what it means to be appreciated in our culture.”

She explained that the desire to transition the program to high school aged students was due in large part to success of the college camps and yet several unanticipated benefits came out of the program.

Firstly, high school students tend to be more alienated in their beliefs. As the NY Times article covering the camps explained, “To advocate for gay marriage is a fashionable thing to do” whereas advocating for women’s rights is viewed as dated and unnecessary. These younger feminists are not always encouraged to support what they believe in, they may not have a student group or course to engage with other feminists and so the camp provided an opportunity for them to network which reaffirmed their own beliefs in feminism and their own leadership.

Secondly, in the same way the college camp is helpful for career development, the high school camp was helpful for college prep. The high school participants were able to see firsthand what being a professional feminist looks like and learned that you didn’t have to major in gender studies to get there.

While there are still some kinks to work out, mainly the desire to make all camps more representative of all genders and for the college and post grad camps, of all age groups, so far they have been incredibly successful in addressing marginalized issues and serving an economically diverse community.

Amy mentioned that she feels that most programming for girls in New York City is geared towards “the under-served or the over-served but not much is out there that serves both” but through the camps they’ve been successfully able to do so. While the college students are all privileged in the sense that they are able to attend college, a range of community college and private college students are represented at the camps. In the high school group, there was a mix of public and private school students as well. This range of lived experience is incredibly valuable to each camp group in highlighting issues that perhaps wouldn’t necessarily come up organically, such as women and incarceration and disability, two of the themes in last week’s high school camp.

The camps range in price at $1,000 for a week for the high school camp and $1,500 for a week for college students as it includes housing. While not a small sum, the camp has been regarded by past participants as very “economical for what you get.” When I asked Amy about funding opportunities, she mentioned most college students have the advantage of being able to raise funds from their schools. While the high school students haven’t been as lucky, they are working to help them secure funding in the future. Soapbox also offers financial aid and scholarships and works with donors to fund spots for underprivileged participants. But Amy did mention that they feel it is important that every participant be responsible to pay at least a portion of fee, however small, in order to feel committed to attend and to gain an understanding of what it means to invest in themselves.

“Jennifer and I get a huge amount out of these camps, I think we started out thinking it was a great opportunity for them and we’re always reinforced to think 'Oh, no it’s a great opportunity for us!'” said Amy. Spoken like a true feminist.

The next camp for college students and post grads is due to take place in January 2014, and I for one am definitely signing up! Interested in joining me or partnering with the high school camps? Learn more here