On Wednesday, July 11th, 2 friends, Frank Denbow, Milena Arciszewski and I (Erica) trekked up an hour to the third to the last stop in The Bronx, New York. We walked another 10 minutes to a residential block, and found ourselves in a defunct laundromat turned drug den turned donated 30 year lease to fund a camp for REALLY SMART AND PASSIONATE neighborhood teens looking to learn about technology and outdoor leadership skills during their summer vacations.
That was heavy. But you know what? It was one of the most incredible days I’ve had in the last few years.
Camp Interactive has been in operation for around 12 years now, and is run as a 501c3 nonprofit. Through support and funding initiatives as well as donations, executive director (since 2003) Craig Meisner has built a wonderful place for recreational and skills based learning. The teens (who have to be recommended to the program and apply, or recruited through classroom presentations) attend a week of training, either in video/film and storytelling, in photography and photoshop (and they were using DSLRs, GoPros, etc—this was nice equipment), or in web development (HTML, CSS, etc).
Then, they go outdoors on a week plus long trip upstate either camping and hiking, tech surfing, or in this summer’s case, sailing. While outdoors, they shoot film and photos, which they then come back and for a few more weeks, build a website to tell their stories from the trip.
Craig has managed to turn what was only a summer program originally into a full year long center with a staff. They run programs like coordinated treks on Mt. Kilimanjaro, and have marathon runners raise money for the center. Inventiveness should be Craig and his team’s middle name (see this GAP ad with the founders of Foursquare).
While I was absolutely impressed with the self-starter teens ranging in age from 12-17, I was even more impressed with the “teachers,” aka prior CI attendees/campers who had now continued in the field in which they’d been inspired. Pedro, the rising Junior at a university in Florida, taught an incredibly engaging hour on introduction to shooting video (with lots of relevant help from Vimeo’s Video School). Not only did he teach the concepts clearly, but he read his campers/students very well, and knew when to get them engaged by reading his lesson plan out loud, or by soliciting their interpretations of the video lessons.
I got to teach the importance of incorporating a story arc into their films for about 40 minutes, and walked away feeling like I learned just as much if not more from talking with the teens as they might have learned from me.
In reflecting on his experience, Frank said “It was inspiring to see the kids engaged in technology education. Their enthusiasm proves that programs like these are needed!”
Milena amusingly stated “Watching the kids learn how to use Photoshop was both sweet and alarming—sweet in the way they chose to re-imagine photos of Barack Obama with polka-dots and a goatee, but alarming in the speed with which they picked up the program.”
Being around teens, especially the next generation of young adults, is SO important. How can we build relevant products and worthwhile companies if we aren’t talking to teens? How can we presume that we’ll be doing anything important if we don’t talk to people who we wouldn’t necessarily spend time with daily or even weekly or monthly? Camp Interactive and Do Something! remind me of this more and more.
We’re all in pretty compact bubbles. Being at Camp Interactive reminded myself and my incredibly smart and wonderful friends just how great it is to get out in the world and out from behind our computers, and that we can learn just as much from others as we learn from hacking products everyday.
We’ll be going back up to CI in the next few weeks after the teens return from their sailing trip to help on their final projects. Let Kareem and I know if you’re a photo, video, or web development geek out there excited to mentor and hang out with some really good people!