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May 19, 2020

Voices from Youth Climate Action

As governments, environmental non-profits, climate experts and everyday people become more alert to the climate crisis, and double-down investments in addressing it, there’s a growing movement among youth to take matters into their own hands. After all, it’s their future they’re fighting for.

In 2019, in collaboration with Youth Challenge International, we piloted the Innovate MY Future program, a platform for 100 young people in the Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area to tackle climate change in tangible ways and test new approaches to address the crisis at the local level.

What we learnt went far beyond the boundaries of climate action: young people want to be actively and meaningfully involved in scaffolding their own futures, be it with respect to climate change or any number of other issues that shape their day-to-day lives.

We caught up with three of the program’s youth climate action catalysts to get their perspectives on the program, the future of youth climate action, and what youth action looks like during the challenges of social distancing. Here’s what we heard:

What made your team’s initiative unique?

Samantha Casey (she/her)
Climate ChangeHERS and Co-Founder of the Community Climate Council
Peel Region, Ontario

The Innovate MY Future program truly was a catalyst experience for us. Every member of my team was interested in furthering the youth climate movement in Peel Region but didn’t have the capacity to do so alone. Through the program, we were able to come together. After meeting with our municipal partners, our team recognized the unique role that youth can have in actively building constructive solutions to climate change. We wanted to go beyond the traditional "raising awareness” and protesting for change by developing opportunities for youth and young adults to help build the future for Peel Region that we want to see. We recognized that there were other youth in Peel Region that would greatly benefit from gaining access to a platform to develop as a leader and experience change-making in action, which is why we founded the Community Climate Council. Our team has now grown from 5 climate action catalysts to 24 active members since our launch in January 2020.

AnneMarie Palermo
Fashion for Futures
Toronto, Ontario

During my time in the Innovate My Future program, my team organized a showcase event in downtown Toronto that centered on the environmental impacts of the fast fashion industry, featuring local ethical companies. It was so interesting to witness people from all parts of the industry, from consumer through to retailer, learning about the issue. I think this just goes to show that fast fashion’s affect in a globalized world is such a new concept. We can all do better to understand it, and act to minimize its damage.

Niki Van Vugt
The Sustainable6ix
Toronto, Ontario

The Innovate My Future program was an incredible opportunity to meet other likeminded youth from across the GTHA. I was completely inspired by my teams’ passion and drive to push for increased action towards climate justice. Although many of us had never met before, we were able to successfully come together and focus on one subset of climate change: waste reduction. Having such diverse backgrounds and perspectives allowed us to be more creative and tackle the problem in our own unique way. We went door-to-door in the Bloor West Village neighbourhood to increase awareness of our group’s initiative and canvassed local shops in the area, asking local business owners to place a sticker in their windows indicating that customers are free to bring their own bags, mugs or other containers. We have been able to build strong relationships with local business owners and witnessed a growing and enthusiastic acceptance of the waste reduction movement in the Bloor West Village neighbourhood and Greater Toronto Area.   

What is your hope for youth action?

AnneMarie Palermo
Fashion for Futures
Toronto, Ontario    

I hope that youth all over the world can also take up their own grassroots initiatives to help tackle climate change. Examples include starting an eco-club at your school, getting in touch with community representatives to create a neighbourhood garden, and even ensuring close friends and family are aware of the different ways we contribute to climate change (such as the food and fashion industries, among many others). If there's anything I've learnt through the Innovate MY Future program (and trust me, there's a lot), it's that political figures are typically more than willing to listen to the voices of their community. So, if there's something you're really interested in getting done or changed, a chat with or email to your local MPP doesn't hurt at all. Though showing support in bigger projects and rallies is fantastic, change really does begin within your own community, and who better to understand it than the people living in it!     

Samantha Casey (she/her)
Climate ChangeHERS and Co-Founder of the Community Climate Council
Peel Region, Ontario

My hope for the youth climate action movement is to have youth driving change from both the bottom up and top down. We need youth to see themselves as the leaders and designers of tomorrow and today. Youth-led action on climate change can be better supported through increasing opportunities for young leaders to take part in programs such as the Innovate My Future program. I’d love to see more municipalities supporting youth-led climate action programs and projects through providing accessible opportunities for youth to design, lead, and support initiatives in their community. Provide education on structural and institutional changes required for climate action, youth need to know how to make change, not just why we need to change. It is time for youth to not be token participants, but drivers for change.

Niki Van Vugt
The Sustainable6ix
Toronto, Ontario

I have several hopes for the youth climate action movement. I wish for the internal spark to remain ignited and for continued momentum across the globe. In the past year alone, there has been an incredible shift in youth-led collective action, from protests, school strikes and walkouts, to sit ins, and community discussions (both in-person and online). I also hope for increased recognition of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and acknowledgement of other youth leaders from across the globe. There are many who have been fighting climate change in their own communities for quite some time and their continued efforts deserve heightened attention. I would love to see demands actually met and a greater shift in power. Youth are successfully speaking up against inaction, but those who hold power to make tangible changes must listen and act immediately. I believe that in order to effectively prevent burnout for youth climate activists, there needs to be increased short-term wins such as transitions away from fossil fuels and the delivery of a Green New Deal.   

Given social distancing, what new or different approaches are you taking to climate action?

Given social distancing, what new or different approaches are you taking to climate action?

AnneMarie Palermo
Fashion for Futures
Toronto, Ontario    

These times make it difficult to physically band together with our communities, so I've made my projects even more local - right in my own home. I've been creatively re-purposing materials: broth stocks from food scraps, jewelry holders from plastic containers, and my favourite, altering old clothing to give them a new look. Doing creative activities like these is an easy way to reduce all types of waste and stimulate my brain; which, admittedly, is in need of stimulation to balance out all the Netflix I'm watching.

Samantha Casey (she/her)
Climate ChangeHERS and Co-Founder of the Community Climate Council
Peel Region, Ontario

Given social distancing regulations, we have adapted our operations to be completely online. We changed our expectations of involvement for members, as this is a hard time for many dealing with the new reality that faces them. We, as co-founders, are creating more personal connection check ins with members to see how people are doing to create the safe space that was in our original vision. We may be distanced, but our members are certainly not disengaged or discouraged by our changing operations. We have seen an increase in applications for new members and in participation as this council provides an outlet and space for members to talk and check in with other like-minded individuals in their community. Our council has itself become a community of youth climate leaders.

Niki Van Vugt
The Sustainable6ix
Toronto, Ontario

As a result of physical distancing, our grassroots initiative of Bloor West Reduces increased its efforts to become connected to our community members through various online platforms. We have adapted our online content to reflect the needs and interests of our community. Whether this be through the provision of mental health resources such as calming activities to reduce stress and various telephone numbers for crisis interventions, partnerships with other grassroots groups to facilitate contests and giveaways, and increased information on other local efforts such as libraries acting as pop-up food banks to alleviate and prevent increased food insecurity.  We continue to focus on supporting the waste reduction movement but understand that this is an extremely challenging time for individuals and their households. Many of us are attempting to strike a balance between supporting local businesses through purchasing takeaway, which unfortunately often comes in plastic containers. We hope that by increasing our online presence and reiterating our openness and availability to connect, we can strengthen relationships that will ultimately help our community tackle climate change with increased enthusiasm and vigor once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Are you between the ages of 16-24 years old and passionate about climate action? Don’t miss the next round of the Innovate MY Future program this July. Find out more about the program here; applications open in the last week of May!