Youth-led summit hits climate justice themes
A youth-led climate and sustainability summit last month brought hundreds of Boston area young people together to learn and share information about climate change impacts and potential solutions from energy innovation to eco-entrepreneurship to political activism.
The 11th annual YouthCAN Climate and Sustainability Summit, organized by the Boston Latin School Youth Climate Action Network (BLS YouthCAN) in partnership with the MIT Technology and Culture Forum, was held May 13 at the MIT Stata Center in Cambridge.
The day-long event, free and open to the public, drew some 240 youth representing at least 38 public and private schools in Greater Boston and surrounding suburbs.
While some workshops covered climate change impacts in New England and cool innovations in energy, the overarching themes of the day were youth activism and social justice.
“The goal is always to educate as many people as possible about climate change and to get them to feel they can take action on climate change,” Susan Tang, a 10th-grade YouthCAN leader, told the Banner. “In addition, [this year] we helped people see connections they may not have seen before between climate change and other movements. We felt we could start a coalition where the climate change part of social justice could get together with other movements like Black Lives Matter.”
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Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, minister for ecological justice at Bethel AME Church and former executive director at Project HIP-HOP, delivered a rousing keynote address.
“The change we are looking for is going to come from your generation, not mine,” she told the young people. “You see the challenges. You are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
A rapt audience listened as White-Hammond described how she came to connect climate and social justice issues. She spoke first of her own teen years, when it seemed that environmental problems were pretty well taken care of after the atmospheric ozone hole was addressed. At that time, it felt more important to deal with violence and juvenile justice issues in her own neighborhood. But as an adult running Project HIP-HOP in 2005, in one summer she grieved the loss of a much-loved teen to violence and watched the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“The storm itself was scary,” she said, “but even more disturbing was what happened after the storm. People who had lived their whole lives in America were treated like they were from somewhere else. They were being called refugees and looters, and left alone with no water and no food. People wondered why they didn’t just leave. [But] they didn’t have the resources to get out.”
She perceived an overlap between the problems she was working on in Boston’s communities of color and the potential devastation of environments and neighborhoods worldwide as weather extremes became more common.
“I realized these weren’t two separate problems,” she recalled. “They were deeply related — and everything I cared about would get worse if we didn’t do something about climate change.”
White-Hammond concluded by challenging the teens to be “courageously creative.” She emphasized that whatever they chose to be — scientists, artists, lawyers, teachers — they all would have a role to play in tackling environmental problems and creating a just society.
“The work we need to do requires you to work together,” she told them, “and to do things in ways we have never imagined.”
After the keynote, participants dispersed to visit exhibitor tables and attend workshops such as forestry and climate change, renewable energy and getting involved in food justice activism.
Danielle Augustin, a 9th-grade BLS YouthCAN member heading into a “Climate, Racism and Capitalism” workshop, said she was inspired by White-Hammond’s speech.
“I thought it was amazing that she used her pain to make a positive impact,” she said.
Exhibitors included Sierra Club and local initiatives like Boston GreenFest and the city of Boston’s Greenovate program. Jerry Spatch, a Northeastern University student and inventor of the freelance-rap-creation game Vers, taught attendees how to rap about climate change and social justice.
Youth organization exhibitors included Teen Empowerment, Girl Scouts working with Mass Green Network, the New England Aquarium ClimaTeens and the Boston Student Advisory Council, a citywide body of elected student leaders co-administered by Youth on Board and the BPS Office of Engagement. BSAC youth have been working with science teachers, headmasters and other adult stakeholders to push for a climate curriculum in Boston Public Schools.
The event began with entertainment from the BLS Step Squad and Blest Energy band members Nadia and Cita-Light.
BLS YouthCAN was a U.S. Green Building Council 2017 “Best of Green Schools” honoree. In addition to the annual climate summit, the group was noted for its efforts in the installation of a 28-panel solar array and 350 trays of vegetation on the school’s green roof. In addition, water bottle filling stations have been placed throughout the school, a zero-sort recycling program has reduced waste by 50 percent, and the group helped implement a lighting retrofit that saves an estimated $33,000 in energy costs annually.
YouthCAN student leaders will be conducting tours of the BLS features when the USGBC’s Greenbuild conference comes to Boston this November.