Two side by side photos. One of the left: two kids sit on tree sumps and a third on the ground are drawing on paper while sitting next to a stream. The photo of the right: a teacher and kid stand in a flower and vegetable garden.

Youth Empowerment, Activism, and a Summer Camp Under Siege

Budding Roses is a free social justice summer camp for elementary and middle school youth in Portland, Oregon. Founded in 2017, Budding Roses encourages youth activism by helping kids learn about “racism, gentrification, student activism, gender, climate change, and mental health—issues that Portland youth are already engaging with.” Significantly, the camp takes the leadership and perspective of young people seriously. Campers democratically decide what topics to discuss, set ground rules collectively, and teach workshops to other participants (IGD). 

But a local news outlet cited a far-right media personality with connections to paramilitary organizations (Jewish Currents) to paint the participatory summer camp as somehow connected to “protests and violence” (KATU). Right-wing organizations are now targeting Budding Roses, and the camp needs support to keep providing free programming to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Efforts like Budding Roses are critical because of the skills, resources, and community they provide and because they respect young people’s autonomy, decision-making, and leadership.


Support Budding Roses, a free youth social justice summer camp.

• Advocate for liberatory education, youth autonomy, and the right to student protest.

There’s a narrative in the United States that activism is something you might choose to dabble in during college but are best advised to leave behind after graduation. This likely makes sense to those able to acquire post-college comforts and privileges, since it totally erases the idea that anybody older than college age might confront systemic injustices, not to mention denying anyone who doesn’t go to college even a brief four-year period of socially-acceptable activism. But there’s another problem with thinking of protest solely as a college extracurricular: it also ignores the possibility of youth activism, including organizing by people in elementary and middle school.

We aren’t immune from social issues until we reach a certain age. Young people are being arrested in schools where they have no input about conditions or the content of their classes. Unhoused kids aren’t neutral on housing policy issues any more than LGBTQ+ kids are impartial on homophobic and transphobic policies. Four-year-old children of all races in the U.S. already associate white people with higher status (APA). Abuse of young people of all ages is facilitated by a culture that doesn’t take their agency and autonomy seriously. Black and Brown students, poor and working-class kids (New Republic), and gender-variant youth have their autonomy, and decision-making affirmed the least.

This doesn’t mean that a group of eight-year-olds should set federal policy. There is no reason to believe they would produce better policies than those set almost exclusively by the very old (Slate, The Cut). What this does mean is that we need to take young people seriously as members of our communities, as decision-makers, and as community leaders in their own right. We can’t fix the crises confronting our society without empowering the people who are going to inherit it. 

Jewish teenage girls in the sweatshops of New York organized the Uprising of 20,000 in 1909 and “sparked five years of revolt that transformed the garment industry” (JWA). Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman. Ruby Bridges was a six-year-old when she became the first Black student at a school in New Orleans in 1960 (BBC). The first recruit to Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was 16-year-old Bobby Huttons, who was summarily executed by the Oakland Police Department the following year (NPR).

In just the last decade, young people pressured the Obama administration into creating DACA, organized unions at their fast food jobs, initiated mass protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, fought sexual harassment in schools, confronted fascists in the streets, and faced off against the police of the most powerful, militarized government in the world during two waves of Black Lives Matter protests (Teen Vogue). “The adults weren’t serving us,” says Laila DeWeese of the PDX Black Youth Movement. “So we built something that was entirely us” (Teen Vogue). A seventh-grade Quannah ChasingHorse was the sole person to show up to give public comment in favor of her school district changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. A 13-year-old Naiara Tamminga told the Grand Rapids City Commission after the police murder of Patrick Loyola, “I have other things I could be doing, and I’m sitting here in front of a group of adults who think murder is okay. You can’t sit here and tell me you don’t think murder is okay because you’re allowing it to happen” (InContext/Twitter, @nktamminga).

Youth are experiencing, confronting, and resisting the same unequal structures as adults, often with greater severity and always with less power. We need to empower youth activism, even if it means giving up power of our own, and support youth leadership in fighting oppression and demanding liberatory education practices in all of our schools (KnowledgeWorks). Projects like Budding Roses are crucial to building the kind of future we all deserve.


• Young people are conscious of and affected by systems of oppression.

• There’s a long history of youth confronting social injustices. 

• Supporting youth autonomy and leadership are key.

1740 908 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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