By Sasha Savoian, Education Specialist
In a year of isolation, online learning and uncertainty, twenty-nine high school students from Whatcom and Skagit counties mobilized around the theme of environmental justice in our Youth for the Environment and People (YEP!) program.
“I wanted to tangibly make a difference, work with other motivated young people, and learn more about environmental justice!” — YEP! student
Once again, teens revealed their great capacity for compassion and action in our community — all during a time that has put extraordinary pressure on young people. Together, these students built community by giving 20 upcycled bags filled with food and supplies to Northwest Youth Services, and developing a website with COVID safety resources and educational materials on the disproportionate harm the pandemic has had on some communities. The most important outcome, though, were the connections students made and the thoughtful process they took on to learn how they can “tangibly make a difference.”
YEP! aims to empower youth to follow their passions, develop leadership skills and take action on environmental and climate justice. The program’s third year was one with many firsts. Thanks to a partnership with the North Cascades Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures program, we were able to reach more 9th-12th students and host two cohorts of students hailing from both Skagit and Whatcom counties. We were also able to offer stipends upon completion of the group project.
Throughout the fall semester, both groups showed up on the screen every week for an hour and a half to share ideas with each other, engage in activities, learn about ways to achieve environmental justice and collaborate on a final action project.
Food and Environmental Justice
The first 16 students voted to center their environmental justice project around food access inequities. They took a deeper dive into the environmental and social inequities of large-scale agricultural food systems with online activities. After considering several project ideas, the group decided to make food bags for youth in need in our community.
Students sewed bags out of old t-shirts and filled them with food, a gift card to a local food establishment, notes of encouragement and a list of helpful resources. Small groups worked together virtually on pieces of the project and a handful of students who felt comfortable meeting in-person (masked, of course) did the legwork procuring items and assembling the bags.
After the outreach group contacted several local organizations in both counties that offer supportive services, Northwest Youth Services, who assist youth experiencing houselessness in Whatcom and Skagit counties, received 20 donated bags put together by students. In the words of a student from Mount Vernon High School, “The team of teens that made up YEP! this year was very adamant about helping people our own age, since we connected more with them. Our goal was to help as many people, in as environmentally friendly a way as possible!”
Public Health and Environmental Justice
Aptly timed, the second group of students voted to center the current inequities in public health due to COVID-19 for their project around environmental justice. The 13 participants discussed the various ways pollution and disease disproportionately impact Black, Brown, Indigenous, Immigrant, and low-income communities. After brainstorming ideas and compromising, they decided the project would be twofold: (1) donate COVID-19 safety supplies to those in need, and (2) create a website that included helpful COVID resources, highlighting the link between a healthy environment and healthy people, while providing important background information about environmental justice.
Like students in the first cohort, they divided into smaller groups to complete each element of the projects. Some students researched and compiled resources for the website. Some discussed what safety supplies they should donate and to whom, venturing out to get the supplies. Others provided content for the website.
One student translated parts of the website into Spanish. And finally, another student designed the website. “I learned that I need a community around me to accomplish a goal! Teamwork!”, reflected the student who designed the website.
The students gave Community Action of Skagit County sanitizing wipes, adult and kid sized masks, and hand sanitizer to distribute to people in need in Skagit County.
Students’ parting words: “I learned that I may have a few more ‘leadership bones’ in my skeleton than I thought.”
It’s a gift to work with these motivated and passionate youth and watch them grow as individuals and collectively! As we all navigate this time of great change and continue the work to protect the environment and communities living here, the YEP! program reminds us all to listen to the next generation of resilient leaders. When youth have space and resources, they accomplish great things.
In the words of the students:
“I think I care about this stuff even more than I realized. I have always cared a lot but I used to just kind of feel sad and wallow in how sucky the world is but now I can care in a more practical way. In a way that gets things done and helps make it better bit by bit.”
“I learned that I want to pursue my passion for fighting for environmental rights in college. Whether it’s me majoring in something specifically towards environmental justice or just me joining a club, I do hope to continue the fight for environmental justice”
“I learned that I may have a few more “leadership bones” in my skeleton than I thought. I used to see myself as someone incapable of leading, but now I feel that although I might not be the most assertive person ever, I have it in me to lead a group.”