How Equity in Education Can Foster Youth-Led Climate Advocacy

Frustration often serves as the impetus for youth-led activism as lawmakers continue to ignore the impending climate crisis. As marginalized communities experience a disproportionate impact on climate change, youth are bridging the understanding between climate change and climate justice. Young people are pushing for equity in education to uplift holistic understandings of climate change.

Lilian Chang is a freshman at UC Berkeley interested In legislative change or data science and how we can incorporate technology into environmental and social justice. She is excited to be a part of the advocacy scene at Berkeley. 

Katinka Lennemann is a high school senior who plans to continue her work in climate activism after entering college.

How did you first get involved in the movement for climate justice and what accomplishments have you seen through your advocacy and leadership in San Mateo county? 

Lilian: Education plays a key role in cultivating my climate justice journey. It wasn’t until I took an AP environmental science class during my sophomore year of high school that I truly understood the devastating consequences of climate change. I started connecting those concepts to real life and feeling empowered to look at what I can do as a youth in the community to make a change or impact, considering my future and also the future of our planet.

Although it seemed daunting at first to look at a solution for climate change, it opened my eyes to see all the things that contribute to it. For me, looking at the waste culture on my school campus was the most visible aspect. I started by creating a green team on our campus and looked at ways to reduce waste, consumption, and how to tackle contamination in our school. From there, I continued working to create assessments to develop solutions. That work led me to different assemblies and programs and I eventually reached out to the office of education for mentorship. I collaborated with other schools to create a waste coalition before creating a proposal for our district with some concrete solutions to improve our waste management culture. However, it was at this time that the COVID-19 pandemic had begun and the superintendent set our proposal aside. 

Fortunately, I also was serving as the vice chair on the San Mateo County Youth Commission and served as the chairman of the Environmental Justice Committee where the climate emergency declaration began. 

Our enthusiasm and initiative around sustainability left a big impact on the superintendent. Through our work, we were able to bring all of the stakeholders together, including student advocates, teachers, the superintendent, and other faculty within our district. Our work was a foundation for a leadership and sustainability model that paved the way for the further development of advocacy and change down the road.

Katinka: It was the drought here in California that really affected me. I’ve seen how my own backyard changed – we can’t grow grass anymore and it gave me a sobering sense of what was happening. I was also aware of my daily carbon footprint and that individual action to reduce it blossomed into a desire to create a larger impact on my community.

Through this program, I completed a community impact project and, together with a partner, set up an edible school garden at Arbor Bay, which is a small school in San Carlos that serves kids in special education. Youth Climate Ambassadors kick-started other work for me in climate justice by connecting me with other students who were doing similar community impact projects as well as with mentors from the San Mateo Office of Education and Offices of Sustainability who hosted the program. 

At the end of last year, I worked with a group of students to declare a climate emergency in my school district. It was not easy because policy-makers were hesitant and it was a long process, but we succeeded. It couldn’t have happened without the work of the San Mateo Union High School District who catalyzed other school districts to do the same. 

What distinguishes the role that youth play in the movement for climate justice? 

Katinka: I think idealism is one thing that sets youth apart and gives us the ability to pursue what others may think impossible. As youth activists, we have the drive to make a change because we are fighting for our future. Because we are young, we are most aware of the impact of climate change on the planet. It’s a bleak future that we are heading toward, and youth are motivated more than anyone to change it. The consequences of climate change, dire as they may be, serve as strong motivators for those of us who cannot bear the thought of the future we’re headed toward.

Lilian: For many youth, our passion for climate justice becomes frustration that gets funneled into activism. We are frustrated with politicians and adults who are in positions of power. At the same time, I feel optimistic and empowered with what youth are trying to accomplish. It is common for us to see performative action from policymakers. Youth are ready to see systemic change rather than just declaring a special day for bees or something. We need to dismantle the systems that do not serve us or our planet. Youth are innovative, tech-savvy, and passionate, and that’s what sets us apart. And I’m always inspired by all the other youth around me and the stories that they bring to the table. 

How do you see the relationship between environmental education and climate justice?

Katinka: In general, society seems to lack an understanding of how climate change and climate justice are related. A holistic environmental education needs to have a component of climate justice because the two are inseparable. We need equity in education because there’s a big difference between who creates greenhouse gases and who’s going to bear the brunt of its impact, and that needs to be acknowledged. Upper-class white Americans will not experience climate change in the same way that communities of color will. 

The disproportionate impact of climate change is also a matter of empathy. Can we change how we are working, how we are using the environment, how we are living as a society in order to save others even if we aren’t the ones being directly impacted? 

Lilian: Education was the starting point of my climate justice advocacy. That’s why environmental literacy and climate justice should be standard in schools; not just in science class but in history as well. The history of the exploitation of minorities and marginalized groups is also a history of climate change because the same political systems that underlie marginalized communities are also responsible for climate change. Education is a starting point for awareness and also a way to empower changemakers. 

What are some actions that would help address climate change and climate justice, and who are the key actors in taking those actions? 

Lilian: At the decision-making level of leadership, we’re looking at our politicians and policy-makers and the impact they have in either staying complicit or making real systemic changes. I know the shifts that need to happen may seem daunting to some, but people need to wake up to the immediate need for that transformation and listen to young people. Real change takes both grassroots movements and competent policymakers who listen to the people they serve, and there must be a bridge between those two communities. 

Katinka: Policymakers are key in spearheading efforts toward any change. On a political level, we need to realize that we all share the same planet and we will all experience the impact of climate change and we need bi-partisan action for us all to be a part of the solution. 

On a more individual level, choosing to shop for sustainable brands also can be a message back to the people in power. Big companies like Coca-Cola or Nestle can see that consumers want sustainability and change. That supply and demand feedback can be super helpful in encouraging action against climate change. We need to combat the mindset of disposable waste and shift toward thinking regeneratively about how we consume products. 

How do you hope the climate movement evolves over the next five years? What do you hope happens and what do you want to see changed?

Lilian: The next few years are critical in terms of our climate and how it will look depending on the actions we take now. We as a global community are reaching that point where we are seeing the real consequences of climate change and realizing we need immediate action. That’s why we focused on issuing a formal declaration of climate emergency.  

From a micro perspective, we will be building climate action plans and goals to drive action. On a bigger level, we need systemic shifts so we aren’t still relying on fossil fuels or on corporations and companies that are exploiting our earth. We need to dramatically and immediately shift those systems and create new jobs in renewable energy and think about ways that we shift the culture within our education system. 

Within these next few years, I hope we reach a point where we do see those radical shifts and a mindset change in people, so these conversations can focus on different perspectives on ways we can mitigate climate change. 

Katinka: Enough people have accepted that climate change is real and it is going to impact our future, but we need to bridge the disconnect between the dire future we are headed toward and the need to take collective action. There is a deadline on this and action is urgent. We have to drastically change methods of production  to prevent an environmental catastrophe. I’m hoping to see more collaboration and cooperation on all levels with people and organizations that are trying to combat climate change. I hope policy-makers actively seek to work with environmental groups rather than lobbyists.