WHEN I GRADUATED from college, I faced a choice. Go to law school and pursue environmental law or go into environmental education. I chose education because I believed then, as I do now, that the passion of young people can be the engine to overcome our biggest challenges, such as climate change.
Little did I know just how much young people would lead! And not just the famous climate activist Greta Thunberg. Youth are leading everywhere and on all aspects of climate action, from indigenous youth leading forest conservation to the school strike movement that has mobilized millions of youth and their supporters in the streets.
While I am impressed by their passion, I am even more impressed by the skills and maturity of these young leaders. Frequently, when I attend high-powered meetings of climate leaders, the most confident and eloquent voices in the room are young people. They have worked hard to advance their ideals, and you can see that they understand the craft of communication.
The same is true with organizing. Youth activists are leveraging social media in ways we older folks can only dream of, and they are showing social skills and an inclusive spirit that puts to shame the coarse public discourse that has too often overtaken our politics.
I am sharing this because American Forests is putting youth right up front in our work. In our earlier years, we were focused on educating and activating youth. But that had slipped away entirely by the time I joined the organization three years ago. While it has forced us to restore some lost skills and relationships, we have committed to creating a strong place for youth partners in our programs.
One embodiment of this commitment can be seen in the U.S. Chapter of 1t.org, which we lead with the World Economic Forum. We secured the Girl Scouts of the USA and Jane Goodall Institute’s youth organization, Roots and Shoots, to serve as inaugural members of the chapter’s stakeholder council. They are helping us marry the interest of young people in trees and forests with their concerns about slowing climate change and protecting biodiversity.
Our commitment is also present in our development of a Tree Equity movement in cities. Part of creating Tree Equity is encouraging young people, particularly those in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, to embrace the power of trees as part of the larger movements they are building to advance environmental and social equity, including climate justice.
We are also helping youth explore and enter careers in urban forestry. We have a digital Career Pathways Action Guide, as well as a new initiative to increase participation from youth of color in urban forestry education programs, which you can read more about in “Seeing the city for the trees.” Likewise, in rural areas, we partner with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to help early career young people get a start in the vital work of restoring climate-resilient forest landscapes in California.
All of these activities connect to American Forests’ proud history in helping to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which primarily engaged younger people. With emphasis on generating new economic activities that can help jump start our economy, and parallel interest in stepping up investment in trees and forests, there is huge potential for federal and state government to re-establish CCC-like programs. American Forests’ policy team has been helping to incubate proposals, such as a Climate Stewardship Corps provision in the federal Climate Stewardship Act. We also played an important advisory role in California’s new establishment of a Climate Corps.
The bottom line is this: Youth are not waiting for their turn in line to lead. They are stepping up right now to move our country forward. We have the opportunity and obligation to empower this youth leadership through trees and forests, and to help channel this toward climate change and other challenges. I hope that you share my excitement at the new power we can create for change by drinking from this fountain of youth leadership.
You will hear much more about this from American Forests in the years to come. Thanks for making stretch moves like this possible!