Trust in Youth

Last week, Crosscut featured a story, “Getting teens to care about climate change,” about a local high school activist at Seattle Academy, Savannah Kinzer, and her quest to rally support for I-732, which would implement a carbon tax in Washington. One of the broader questions in the story was how to make students believe they can individually make a difference with climate change.

Where I work at UW, the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, we recently hosted a video contest for high school and undergraduate students in the state of Washington. The prompt was simple: What does climate change mean to you? In three minutes or less, students could approach the issue any way they wanted, using any style or genre, from documentary to Claymation to animation to rap to whatever inspired them. All we wanted was to collect their voices, expressed in whatever way moved them and captured their thoughts.

The results were amazing. We received dozens of entries from schools across the region and state, and the videos reflected so much passion and creativity and vision—and, in most cases, tremendous hope and belief in the power of action. There were no seconds wasted arguing whether climate change is real; these students understood and embraced the science and then channeled it through music and interviews and art, connecting it very intimately to their own lives and communities. You couldn’t watch the videos without feeling a surge of optimism and excitement—even goosebumps. (The top 10 finalists are available online if you'd like to take a look and get energized!
We shouldn’t be surprised. Young people, after all, carry the heaviest burden with climate change. They’ve had the smallest role in creating the crisis, yet they’ll inherit the most profound impacts of it. So they have every reason to care, to be passionately invested and committed, right now and throughout their lives—and to believe they can change the course of our environmental future.

Conservation_Catwalk.jpgThe best part, to me, is that that our younger generations have already begun acting on their passions and creating a disruptive force for good. Several students in our school, via the student-led group Divest UW, have been closely involved in the movement to get the University of Washington to divest from fossil fuels. Just a couple weeks ago—despite scores of articles and opinions calling the campaign futile, even meaningless—those students convinced the UW Board of Regents to divest from coal companies. It was a stupendous result for the students, as much for achieving their aim as for proving that a small group of committed individuals can make a huge difference. More important, the result will almost certainly embolden these students to pursue even more aggressive changes. It all starts with belief and personal empowerment, and right now some of our biggest believers are coming from the ranks of our youth.

I’ve also had the privilege of working with a couple students who launched their own campus group, Conservation in Style, that focuses on eco-friendly fashion to raise awareness and funds for endangered species. They were freshman last year when they got started, and in that first year—when most kids are plenty swamped juggling schoolwork and social interests—they organized a major fashion show (a "Conservation Catwalk"), an art exhibit and a conservation dinner fundraiser. They haven’t slowed down a bit in year two, and they recently pulled off an even bigger Conservation Catwalk that brought in a host of local designers, as well as designers from Project Runway, around the theme, “Elements of the Wild." These young women are true dynamos, fearless and forward-thinking, and it has probably never occurred to them that they might not be able to accomplish their goals.

So when I hear anyone scoff at the wide-eyed optimism of youth, or at the so-called naiveté of teenagers who “don’t yet know how the real world works,” I can only smile. I smile because these bold young minds don’t care if you’re too jaded to be inspired. I smile because they’re going to take action anyway, and we are all going to depend on their drive and determination to see us through the challenges ahead. That's what gives me so much faith and confidence in the next generation of environmental stewards and leaders.
Photo © Uniformness/US Fashion Photo

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