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Occupy Wall Street Summer Camp Brings Activism to Out-of-School Youth

By Meredith Hoffman | June 20, 2012 6:42am | Updated on June 20, 2012 10:41am

WILLIAMSBURG — Whose summer camp? Our summer camp.

Occupy Wall Street activist Justin Wedes is bringing social justice education and activism to the out-of-school set, offering 35 Brooklyn pre-teens and teens a space at a first-ever OWS-approved summer camp.

“We’re proud to say that this is the next phase of Occupy, building these parallel institutions, independent institutions,” said Wedes, 26, who's about to launch the free, 8-week-long Paul Robeson Freedom School camp.

Wedes said the camp will blend academics, physical education and community-based projects for students — but won't be prepping campers for clashes with cops any time soon. He added that the program is not officially part of OWS, but is led by many longtime Occupy activists.

“It’s focused on community building and not protest per se,” said Wedes, who taught at Red Hook's South Brooklyn Community High School, “although I do believe teaching is an activist act.”

The pilot program, based St. John the Evangelist Lutheran School's building on Maujer Street, is open to 10 to 14-year-olds from all over Brooklyn, but gives admission preference to those from low income families, said Wedes.

It will focus lessons on discussing the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, LGBTQ rights, universal healthcare and other topics of social justice, said Wedes, as well as providing tutoring, lessons in urban gardening and local food, and weekly family nights.

The summer program is backed by groups including the Coalition for Public Education and Global Block, the youth empowerment project run by Congressional "Occupy" candidate George Martinez, along with the longtime Williamsburg nonprofit group El Puente.

The program's name derives from the Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson and from Paul Robeson High School, a public high school slated for closure whose students marched out to the nearby Fort Greene Park building as part of the city’s May Day protests, Wedes said.

The school is also a nod to the Freedom Schools, free alternative schools for African Americans that operated in the 1960s, he said.

Students from the Robeson public school have already helped plan the summer program’s curriculum and will volunteer to teach classes, along with the rest of the all-volunteer staff, Wedes said.

One involved student Ana Leguillou, 19, who will graduate next week from Paul Robeson High School, said working in activism at her school gave her a sense of empowerment.

"Being in Paul Robeson high school has played an important role in the leader that I am today,” Leguillou wrote in an email of her experience organizing the May Day walk-outs from the school.

“I am honored to take part in the Paul Robeson Freedom School and I'm looking forward to inspiring, motivating and lifting morale to students who fight each day for a place in the world,” she said.

The Department of Education — which sanctioned the suspension of students who walked out of the school on May Day —attributed the slated closure of Paul Robeson High School to a review that found that it was a persistently low achieving school and scored low on its progress report card.

"The goal is to provide our students with choices to high-performing schools," a spokeswoman from the DOE said in response to questions about the Freedom School pilot program and the public high school.

But Wedes begged to differ.

"The current model of education has led to so many dropouts, so much truancy, and people who've walked away from the system," he said.

"This is a new model for people who are at risk."

A launch party for the school will be held Wednesday night at For My Sweet Garden and Event Space on 1103 Fulton Street, at 6 p.m. Suggested donations for the program's fundraiser are $10, according to the event's facebook page.