After the Parkland shooting two months ago, youth activism has blossomed. Teenagers have established themselves as capable leaders and agents of change for highly problematic societal issues that adults have refused to address, such a gun control. This summer, Heather Burdick and her team at MCCJ hope to continue helping youth harness their power to enact change and battle hate at Camp MetroTown, a free six-day overnight retreat for South Florida high schoolers held at St. Thomas University in June.
“Camp MetroTown is for any teen who wants to know more about the things going on in our world, anyone who feels that working towards a more just and humane world is important to them and part of their calling. Camp MetroTown helps to open their eyes and connect with their own purpose,” says Burdick, a former teacher who works as the program director at MCCJ.
Camp MetroTown addresses issues such as sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious discrimination. Burdick says teaching teens how to promote diversity and inclusivity is at the heart of Camp MetroTown, and choosing a group of students diverse in race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, religion, and ability is a high priority for the program. During the six-day, five-night retreat, students bunk with fellow campers in the dorms on the campus of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. “[The students] spend a lot of time together," Burdick says. "The idea is that... once you spend time with someone you have differences with, they don’t seem so ‘other’ because of the shared experiences.”
To apply to Camp MetroTown, you must be from South Florida and of high-school age, meaning you are either currently enrolled as a high-school student, entering ninth grade, or a recent graduate. Those who are chosen attend the camp free of charge and earn 85 community service hours upon completion.
During Camp MetroTown, students will learn about societal issues through immersive experiences. “Each day is different, and we dive deeper and deeper. We have experiential learning activities such as games where you go through an experience but you don’t know what it means until after with reflection,” Burdick says. She explains a powerful experiential workshop last year that explored ableism and disability. “Folks with varying disabilities walked around the campus with us and shared what it was like for them to go about daily life. We stopped in at the campus bookstore and got food at the cafeteria. We realized how each person had different barriers. A lot of us without disabilities walk around not paying attention to those things,” she says.
At the end of each day of Camp MetroTown, the students sit with their fellow teens and counselors in small groups to debrief on their experiences. This year, the program will welcome peace and interfaith activist and The Fox Hunt author Mohammed Al Samawi, who will share his story of escaping Al-Qaeda and fleeing Yemen. Burdick says Camp MetroTown can be intense and emotional, but there are also fun social activities such as dance parties, culture night, and a talent show.
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Burdick and a group of Camp MetroTown graduates attended the student-led demonstration March for Our Lives last month in Washington, D.C. “My big focus this year with the youth march and movement happening is to remind youth of the power they have. I’m not empowering them; I’m not giving them what they do not have. I’m reminding them of available resources and connecting them with each other and giving them the confidence to speak up,” she says.
“[The mission of Camp MetroTown] is particularly important this year because [our goal] to remind youth of the power of their voices and their ability to change things is underlined by this movement. [But] all voices of the youth weren’t included, like those of kids in inner-city schools that are experiencing gun violence. The young people in Parkland tried to be inclusive, but it’s a battle to include these voices. With MetroTown, we can widen the scope of understanding... When young people are making changes that need to happen, they will have a wider scope to understand the issues that affect other people and include them in pushes for change.”
Teens can apply online, where they will answer questions about their backgrounds, school activities, experience with discrimination and prejudice, and social issues they wish to learn more about during the camp. They must also submit a character reference form and a $25 application fee, though financial aid is available for those who need it. Camp MetroTown will accept around 40 students this year, and because space is limited, applications submitted sooner rather than later will be prioritized.
Camp MetroTown. Monday, June 18, through Saturday, June 23, at St. Thomas University, 16401 NW 37th Ave., Miami Gardens; miamiccj.org/metrotown; firstname.lastname@example.org. Applying costs $25 via miamiccj.org/metrotown-application-new-form, and financial aid is available.