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Want Students to Be Environmental Activists? Then Step Back and Let Them Lead!

Teen Environmental Activist Makes a Difference in Her Community by Organizing a Fundraiser for Climate Change Awareness

From first grade through ninth, I attended a school where the curriculum had an environmental focus.  After two years in high school I wanted to work with other people who were also passionate about our earth and preserving the environment, and get back to doing climate justice work.

A former teacher recommended the High School Environmental Leadership Project (HELP), a multi-high school program focused on taking on environmental issues like climate change by educating and empowering youth, organizing community events, and getting involved in local politics. I visited a meeting, and immediately loved the atmosphere of youth and adult mentors working together to decide what actions we would take. That was one year ago and I’ve been involved ever since.

We’ve had some big successes!  When the City of Portland was working on its Renewable Energy Resolution, we met with city officials and asked what would be included and how we could help.  An early draft of the resolution excluded youth (!) and didn’t include biomass on the list of renewable energy sources. We wanted to change both of those things.  

As a group, we testified at the Portland City Council meeting where they were voting on the resolution. After hearing us speak, the council voted unanimously to include our clause asking for a Portland City Youth Climate Council. It was an eye-opening experience that made me realize how much power I have as a young person. 

Teen Environmental Activists Proves Young People can Make a Difference in their Communities

On a personal level, I recently organized a Climate Change 6-Mile Relay.  On the day of the relay we had four teams of six and parents and friends on the side watching.  Everyone was wearing a bib with an environmental cause printed on that they chose to race for. It was a lot of fun.

It was also the first time I’ve done anything like that, but I felt like it was possible with the skills I had developed with HELP through leading meetings, communicating with HELP members, and the confidence I gained from testifying in front of the Portland City Council. 

The most essential aspect of our group is that it’s youth-led. But that’s not always an easy thing to achieve. When it comes to organizing and running a youth-led environmental group or green team, we’ve learned that certain elements are critical to success.

Remember, We Are the Future

We are the ones who will be tackling the climate crisis in the future, and we need to develop our leadership skills now.  As students our days are filled with adult direction both in school and under the guidance of our parents.

Because HELP is a youth-led organization, I’ve played the role as a leader and as a participant, which has taught me the importance of letting all voices in a group be heard.  I’ve learned to balance listening with contributing my own ideas. 

Let Our Voices Be Heard

I’ve learned that people listen to youth differently than they listen to adults, and that there is less focus on our own voices being heard.  When a group is led by adults, there is less of a conversation. We listen, they instruct.  That’s why having the youth actually set the agenda and lead the meetings is so important.

We’ve had some challenges when it comes to youth leaders. Balancing the youth-led approach while also accepting input from adult mentors can be tough.

The key for our group has been to pay close attention to whose voices are being heard, and to make sure the youth are at the forefront of the discussion. 

Keys to Success

Getting Started

If you’re interested in starting a green team at your school or on how to become a climate change activist, here are my top suggestions:

  • Come up with a mission and an idea of what you want to accomplish at the beginning
  • Set up an organizational structure for the group at the beginning, i.e. who will lead and how members of the group will collaborate with each other and the adult mentors
  • Decide how you will run your meetings and who will lead them, and a set schedule for when you’ll meet (weekly, monthly etc.).

Running Effective, Youth-led Meetings

In order to allow differing opinions and diversity of viewpoints to circulate within our group we developed a set of ground rules that we go over every time we meet.  Here are some of them:

  • Have different students lead each meeting. This gives everyone a chance to develop organizational and leadership skills.
  • Encourage everyone to participate
  • Be conscious of your own speaking time
  • Make sure everyone understands the big picture
  • Wrap up each meeting with a recap and make a plan for what to work on

About the author

Zella Lobo is a senior at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon, and has been a member of HELP since 2016. As one of HELP’s official student interns, she helps with communication and leadership responsibilities within the student-led organization.  She also enjoys running for the cross country team, swim instructing, and playing the ukulele.

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