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Refugee Youth Empowerment in Summer Camp Program

Project Overview

Empowers high school refugee students to become effective leaders in their own community and valuable mentors to younger refugee students.

Identifying the Problem

Summer learning loss is a critical issue affecting low-income urban youth. It is even more pressing for refugee youth who enter the Providence public schools already behind their peers academically. The Providence public school system struggles to meet the needs of refugee youth, many of whom have had interrupted schooling or no formal schooling in their native countries. Importantly, literacy skills are necessary to access resources and self-advocate. 

As head coordinator of the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment Program (BRYTE), a one-on-one in-home tutoring program matching 125 Brown students with 125 refugee youth, Jesse recognized the need for summer programming for refugee children. This propelled her to expand a half-day summer program into a six-week, full-day English acquisition summer camp for refugee youth. Jesse raised $12,000, located a camp space, hired a staff of college students, developed curriculum, implemented small classes and planned field trips. Committed to a vision of community-based leadership, she designed and implemented a model in which teenagers from the refugee community were hired as paid staff. Including them in leadership roles built their confidence, sense of self and belief that Providence could be a home for them.

After developing and running this camp, Jesse wanted to expand the program for refugee high school students. She returned to BRYTE Camp to lead workshops with the refugee teenagers and develop a program model in which younger refugee students could see that they could grow into counselors who could one day run this program.

Creating A Solution

Jesse created a model that hired nine refugee teenagers as teachers and mentors through BRYTE's Junior Counselor Program. The program model had two components: (1) providing refugee teenagers with the skills to become effective mentors and teachers, and (2) providing these teens with a safe space to talk about systems of power and oppression.

In order to develop this project, Jesse researched youth power and leadership development programs and spoke with facilitators who have led programs for teenagers. She gained resources by connecting with her past employers at the Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program (CYEP), a non-profit educational summer camp for low-income youth that employs Cambridge teens in a leadership and mentorship role. After consolidating resources, Jesse designed the necessary materials, including the curriculum materials and the workshop plans. 

Each junior counselor was paired with a senior counselor for literacy and math classes, and designed and taught curriculum for an hour each week, taking on significant leadership roles in the classroom. In order to ensure that junior counselors had the necessary support to design and teach curriculum, Jesse provided these teens with training, had weekly one-on-one meetings with each student, ensured that they submitted curriculum based on a template Jesse designed, and visited and oversaw their classroom teaching to provide them with consistent feedback. 

Jesse also designed and led workshops that explore power, privilege, systems of oppression and resistance through conversation, writing exercises and activities. The junior counselors participated in these workshops, which included personal discussions on the way students understood their own identities; discussions on racism, classism and sexism; an activity on food deserts and unequal access to resources in Providence, Rhode Island; and a conversation about resistance and protests through an exploration of the Civil Rights Movement. Jesse recruited a college advisor, friends and colleagues to help lead these two days of intensive workshops, and she conducted mini evaluations after each workshop, as well as a more comprehensive evaluation at the end of the summer.

Jesse’s project did not end with the summer camp. She ensured that after the camp finished, the high school teens attended rigorous trainings on college access, résumé writing, public speaking and interview skills, all very valuable to ensuring that these promising youth were well-equipped for life after high school. One junior counselor reported gaining skills in "communication and understanding," while another said that teaching at BRYTE Camp, "opens up the idea of majoring in education." A third student learned how to begin "to solve some problems such as racism, classism, ageism... in the community." 

Due to the overwhelming success of this project, Jesse is working with former directors and counselors of BRYTE Summer Camp to develop "BRYTE Summer High School," which will expand BRYTE Summer Camp into a program for high-school-aged youth. Some refugee teens who have just arrived in the United States are at a first and second grade reading level, and BRYTE High School will be a way to extend the current work of BRYTE Summer Camp to older students who need just as much academic support. Jesse and her team will incorporate themes of social justice, systems of oppression and organizing traditions  into the summer camp curriculum for the refugee teens who have some basic literacy skills. The programming will focus on "Civil Rights & Human Rights," and will look at historical events to understand contemporary questions about social injustice and justice. Additional topics will include questions of "Citizenship," "Nonviolence and Police Brutality," and “Gender, Justice and Homophobia.” By focusing on these topics, the students will increase their literacy skills while talking about important social issues. Students will build skills through debates, book discussions, word banks, poetry, personal essays and presentations.

Lessons Learned

Helping the high school students develop and teach their curriculum was a challenge. At times, Jesse struggled to teach the students what it means to be an effective classroom teacher, how to effectively discipline kids and how to teach a concept beyond having students copy down a sheet of paper or color in a picture. As the summer went on, however, the teens improved their ability to teach younger students. In workshops, Jesse’s plans did not always go as she imagined they would, but she was consistently awed and inspired by the honesty of her students, their vulnerability and their deep interest in learning from and talking with each other. 

Jesse learned that it is very important to spend time thinking ahead about the goals of the project. Ask yourself, ‘What do I want students to learn? How does each workshop or section fit together? How do I effectively navigate challenging and personal conversations?’ Jesse also believes that it is important to assess what students are interested in and design and reshape curriculum based on those interests. For example, when she taught about the Civil Rights Movement, many students did not know about this movement but were very interested, so she added another session on the topic.


Thanks to the generous support of many individuals and organizations, this project required very little direct funding. Jesse gained educational resources and invaluable advice from organizations and summer programs that do work with low-income teens and refugee youth. Many materials were supplied by the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University. The junior counselors were paid by BRYTE's Junior Counselor Program, and local restaurants donated food for group lunches. Other expenses included weekly snacks and some office supplies, including copying supplies, printer paper, markers, poster paper and other office supplies.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2014

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